Profit from winter grazing

“Without joining a discussion group I wouldn’t be farming today.”

It sounds like a dramatic statement, but its one Simon Kellet says with conviction.

In the five years since he joined the Y Not Graziers group, Mr Kellet’s small dairy unit on the outskirts of Leeds has changed beyond all recognition.

With a focus on turning grazed grass into milk, profits are increasing steadily.

Mr Kellet says the support of the farmer group, coupled with advice from its consultants, gave him the encouragement and help he needed to make radical changes at Farnley Hall.

In 2000, the business was just ticking over.

But today, it is more secure and he is full of enthusiasm and plans for the future.

Breeding policy has moved away from Holsteins towards New Zealand Friesian and Jersey semen, with an increase in herd size from 50 to 120 cows and a switch from all-year-round calving to block calving in spring.

This switch has allowed the grazing period to be extended to nine months, with about half the herd away-wintered on contract at a farm 20 miles away for the first time this season.

They returned just 10 days before calving.

The remainder of the herd was fed round bale silage bought from a local merchant, a system which has reduced machinery costs and allowed Mr Kellet and his father, John, more time for cow management and farm maintenance.

And while some may have trepidations at sending cows away for winter, the arrangement has worked well, with cows moved in batches to cubicle housing as they dried off last November.

They were looked after by a retired dairy farmer.

“People assume it must be expensive to away-winter cows, but I believe it is more costly to keep them at home,” says Mr Kellett.

“I reckon it saved about £3 a head a week on straw bedding, although transport charges have to be recognised.

“I visited cows regularly and they have come back in good condition.

I am hoping this will become routine – it means I don’t need to worry about making winter feed and the whole farm can be grazed during the nine month milking period.

It is just as cheap to buy in a small quantity of silage bales for dry cows at home over winter.”

Mr Kellet’s grazing policy is based on a series of 0.8ha (2 acre) paddocks, moving cows daily on a 60-day rotation.

Stocking rates are calculated using liveweight/ha, rather than cow numbers, which is thought to provide a more accurate assessment.

A standard fertiliser policy is used, with a total of 200kg of nitrogen applied in small doses throughout the season to suit the grazing cycle.

In the early stages of change, the business made a slight loss.

“The main reason was loss of production during the time it took to shift the calving pattern.

With hindsight I should have had a herd sale, but at the time it seemed too radical,” Mr Kellett admits.

The use of New Zealand Friesian and Jersey semen has also played a big part in his plans.

“The Holstein does not suit this type of system so well – it suffers from energy deficit too early in lactation.

“Although I am on a white-water milk contract at the moment, the spring-calving policy may eventually mean selling to cheese-makers.

With the Jerseys, I will be looking to increase milk fat content, which currently stands at 3.8%.

“The first crop of Jersey cross heifers is only just coming through the system, so it’s too early to draw conclusions.

However, I’m hoping the change in breeding policy will also bring hybrid vigour and reduce culling rates, particularly for infertility.”

Looking forward, Mr Kellett believes the farm may move away from rearing its own replacements too.

“I might send them away on contract as well, keeping an extra 20-30 cows to pay the bill, although I haven’t made any firm decisions yet.

“However, lack of available land will probably force me to limit cow numbers to 140-150, but I could get a contract milker for the home farm and perhaps share or contract-farm, or rent another unit.

Some smaller farms may think they need a huge turnover to survive, but its profit, not turnover that really matters.”