Collaboration is something often talked about in the dairy industry but seldom practiced, particularly at farm level. But for dairy farmer, Graham Boyt collaboration has been beneficial by growing his own feed on neighbouring farms and exporting his slurry.
The collaboration came about after Mr Boyt, farm manager at Sparsholt College decided he wanted to tighten budgets.”I was fed up with my budgets being blown apart by things out of my control – like the exchange rate or the amount of soya being planted in Brazil.
“So I decided it would be good to try and grow feed here, but we simply did nothave the necessary land to do it, and our soil type doesn’t suit some of the crops we wanted to grow. So I started talking to my neighbours,” says Mr Boyt.
Situated on chalk downland, Sparsholt farm extends to 140ha of farmable land and is home to 160 cows as well as 130 sows, 350 ewes and 70 horses. And, while it is a college farm and so has a role to play in education, the farm must also perform as a commercial unit.
Rather than buying in feed, Mr Boyt is now contract growing a range of crops including lupins, lucerne, spring oats undersown with vetch, and maize on neighbouring farms.
He agrees the contract price a year in advance, which helps with his budgeting, and this takes account of the fertility benefits left behind for his arable neighbours, particularly after the leguminous crops.
Slurry and muck is also exported to his neighbours, which helps with NVZ compliance and again boosts fertility on their light arable land. He also receives about 550 acres of oat/barley straw back in exchange for a neighbour using some of his labour and machinery. The straw is used for bedding and feeding the cows and horses.
“The way it works is we contract grow the feed crops on our neighbour’s farm and then he sells it back to us as a standing crop. But it extends beyond that because we’ll help him out if he has a machinery breakdown or is short staffed and he’ll do some spraying for us as his equipment is larger and more efficient. We keep a tally of who does what and then we’ll settle up at the end of the year if we are out of balance,” says Mr Boyt.
Mr Boyt is confident the arrangement delivers benefits. “It works well for us as it helps with cost and budget control as we know what we are getting and at what price, it also aids with our NVZ compliance. It’s good for our neighbours, too, as they get to share our fertility and there are benefits in weed control by introducing new crops into their arable rotations,” he says.
It seems the mutual benefit is the crux of such collaboration working successfully. “It takes time to establish such relationships and when I first approached one of my neighbours with the idea he actually laughed at me. However, after about two to three years of conversation we agreed to give it a try and now it is working well for both of us.
“It has to be mutually beneficial to be sustainable and it relies on trust and good communication with both parties having to be flexible if such collaboration is going to work,” says Mr Boyt.
His neighbour, Richard Monk of Rookley Farm seems to agree.”The arrangement we have works well. We swap land, growing 30ha of seed crops on Sparsholt’s fields after grass or forage crops while Graham grows 30ha of maize or grass on our land. We also swap some of our straw for their muck and labour and machinery at different times of year and we keep a running ‘bank balance’ that we settle once a year,” says Mr Monk.
The new rations are also working well for the cows, according to Kite Consultant, Mike Bray.”Since introducing alternative crops, milk yields have maintained at about 8870 litres a year with milk quality stable at 4.4% butterfat and 3.21% protein. The aim was not to increase production, but simply to produce it more efficiently and we know we are achieving that as all the feeds are fully costed.”
This method of production is also more sustainable and lower risk, according to Mr Bray.”Previously with only grass and maize being grown, if one crop had a bad year then feed production was vulnerable.Now with such a range of crops, the chances of everything suffering a bad harvest are reduced and it has got to be more sustainable feeding Hampshire grown vetch than Brazilian grown soya,”he says.
Mr Boyt recommends other farmers to give it a try. “Particularly with NVZ regulations putting pressure on dairy farmers and the exchange rate having such an impact on the price of fertiliser and feed, I would recommend others to try it. Collaborating in this way gives you the ability to plan forward, it gives you security and it is sustainable – things that are hard to dismiss in the current climate.”