Once-a-day milking can be an attractive option for dairy farmers looking to reduce time spent in the parlour, but the benefits don’t stop there. Aly Balsom reports
While less time tied to the parlour may be one of the headline benefits of once-a-day milking, it’s clear most farmers taking the plunge also have the bottom line clearly in their sights.
For Cornish dairy farmer Andrew Brewer, increased profit a hectare was one of the main reasons he decided to reduce milking frequency on his grass-based, spring calving system.
“We looked at several different budget options and crunched the numbers and once-a-day won financially over twice-a-day milking. Butterfats and protein are higher on once-a-day and cows eat less – it’s simple maths,” explains Mr Brewer, who supplies milk on a constituents contract to Davidstow.
Over the years, the Jersey cross Friesian herd at Ennis Barton, Newquay, has undergone significant expansion, growing from 60 cows in 1998 to the current herd of 650. As numbers have increased, so have walking times from pasture to parlour. As a result, the farm started using occasional once-a-day milking to free up staff time at the weekend. It was also used strategically at the end of the season as cow yields decreased.
“In 2005 when we had 500 cows, we were probably milking 13 times a week, mostly to improve lifestyle. We found the reduction in yield was less financially, than paying a relief milker,” he explains.
As cow numbers grew further and walking times increased up to two hours, the proportion of the season when cows were milked once a day was extended. In 2009, cows were milked daily from June until drying off in November. The decision was then made to milk once in the morning throughout the season, based on careful cost calculations.
Since adopting once-a-day milking, yields have dropped 20% to 3,800 litres a cow a year. However, milk solids have increased 10-15% to about 5% fat and 4% protein, and costs have fallen by about 10%.
As a result of these improvements in efficiency, profit a hectare has increased by roughly 20%.
“Profit a hectare is a big driver and this has increased since going once-a-day. Yield a hectare is also something we look at. We want to maximise the amount of forage we utilise into milk as we need a sustainable business. We’re doing about 13,000 litres/ha with cows stocked at four cows a hectare on grazed grass,” says Mr Brewer.
Better control over grassland management has also been fundamental in helping to improve profits through better grass utilisation.
Cows are currently only housed for a short period at calving and graze grass for much of the year before being outwintered on 29ha of fodder beet.
However, buildings are being put up to provide winter housing at strategic times. This will help maintain production and protect soils when ground conditions are poor. The aim is to keep costs below 60% of the gross farm income, excluding finance and rent.
Grazing management is the linchpin to managing such low cost, efficient system, says Mr Brewer.
A plate meter is used to monitor grass covers and formulate a grass wedge on the 180ha grazing platform. Cows are managed on a paddock grazing system, remaining in paddocks for varying times depending on paddock size and grass covers to achieve a residual of 1,400-1,600kg DM/ha.
Mr Brewer believes moving to once-a-day milking has made grassland management easier by reducing decision-making. On twice-a-day systems, deciding whether to go back into a paddock after afternoon milking can often be a difficult decision. With once a day, staff are not dictated to by a second milking and can be more focused on post-grazing residuals.
“You have more control with once-a-day and that means we are growing more grass and possibly seeing better grass quality. If you can grow more and utilise more effectively, you can increase profit,” he explains.
Cow health benefits
Mr Brewer says improvements in cow health have also been dramatic, most noticeably mobility. Consequently, he has seen a reduction in the number of involuntary culls, allowing selective culling to drive quicker improvements in herd genetic gain. “Lameness is about 30-40% less and it’s also a lot easier to hit body-condition targets as cows are not having to walk as far,” says Mr Brewer.
“On twice-a-day milking, when cows had to walk long distances, lameness was not excessive, but higher than we would have liked,” he explains. “Now we can keep a relatively low replacement rate [15-20%], but choose who goes.”
As a result, the business is able to breed fertility into the herd by selectively culling less fertile animals. Cows are served for six weeks with an empty rate of less than 10% after this period. These tail-enders are served to beef and sold in-calf.
Somatic cell counts (SCC) and bactoscans have also improved by 20% since reducing milking frequency, with SCC averaging 140,000 cells/ml.
Good udders are key to the success of the system and an increasing emphasis is being placed on New Zealand Friesian and Jersey genetics with good suspensory ligaments that can carry more milk.
Ultimately, the move to once-a-day milking has helped improve lifestyle for the whole farm team and given Mr Brewer time to spend with his young family.
He also says it has freed up time for strategic planning and getting involved in industry projects such as the South West mentoring scheme.
“It also gives you more time to do maintenance jobs and, because we’re more profitable, we can invest in things that will make our life easier, such as drainage,” he says.
Mr Brewer believes once-a-day milking is another means of attracting young people into dairy farming and was an area he learned more about as part of his Nuffield Scholarship.
“Once-a-day milking is another way to improve quality of life. We’re far more likely to attract young people into dairy farming if we can show they can have an afternoon or a weekend off,” he adds.