How two dairy farms raised margins with grass use

Increasing milk from forage has improved margin over purchased feed by 10% on two Scottish dairy farms. Jeremy Hunt reports.

Improved use of grassland has boosted the volume of milk from 6,218 litres/ha to 9,050 litres/ha in on-farm trials by 
First Milk.

As part of its farm sustainability programme the farmer-owned co-operative has made a commitment that the majority of its milk will come from forage and other locally grown energy sources by 2020. Not only does First Milk believe this is the most efficient – and ultimately the most profitable – system of milk production for dairy farmers, but it says it will ensure its producers are able to supply milk of the correct constituent quality for the company’s cheese production.

“We felt there was an opportunity to put a vision in front of our producers that would show how they could adopt a more profitable system and at the same time help us procure the quality of milk we require,” says First Milk’s Lee Truelove.

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The on-farm trials have been under way with milk producers farming on the Mull of Kintyre and have been set-up and evaluated by independent Yorkshire consultantcy firm Evolution Farming.

There are about 40 farmers on the Mull of Kintyre selling to First Milk – a situation that provided the company with a milk field it felt was ideal to demonstrate the potential for producing more milk from forage.

Two units have been set up as Focus Farms and monitoring began in 2013. Since adopting the new approaches to grassland use, under the guidance of Evolution Farming’s Oliver Hall, the two farms have produced an average of almost 3,000 litres/ha more from forage. And the new system has added a potential extra 1.75p/litre of profit.

“We are now very confident we can advocate the model that has been applied to the two Focus Farms to the wider milk field and already have a further 20 producers ready to adopt it.

“Initially, taking an overview of the costings of the two Focus Farms enabled us to pinpoint the marginal value of the feed that was being used and highlight the potential of their grassland.

“These farms may have felt they could only grow 8-9t DM/ha, so what we have done – through the grassland management programmes applied by Evolution Farming – is to encourage these farms to fully exploit the potential of their grass and have the confidence to reduce feed rates as a consequence,” says Mr Truelove.

The consultancy has been provided free for the first year to the two Focus Farms.

“With only about 30% of the UK’s milk production produced from forage there’s considerable potential for improvement.

“In the case of the farmers on the Mull of Kintyre there’s been heavy reliance on distillers’ grains to bulk up feed supplies, but there are now issues over its continued supply and its ongoing feed value.

“For these producers, a rethink on how to produce their milk more efficiently – and to improve the way they use their grass – was an inevitable challenge.”

Financial improvements

Following the initial management assessment of the Focus Farms there was clearly potential for them both to significantly improve their grassland use, according Mr Hall.

“Our calculations, based on what they were achieving, indicated the stocking rate of cows a hectare on both farms was actually higher than that of the average UK dairy farm, which suggested they were able to generate a lot of forage. But it had to be used more efficiently,” says Mr Hall.

The two Focus Farms comprised a 170-cow herd and a 220-cow herd – both year-round calving.

Final figures from an average of the two farms show that yield a cow increased from 7,183 litres/year in February 2013 to 7,298 litres/year later. Milk solids increased from 7.15% to 7.22% in total.

Within that, the volume of milk produced from a hectare of forage increased from 6,218 litres to 9,050 litres, which achieved a usage in terms of tonnes of dry matter a hectare up from 8.94t to 10.28t.

This figure is high compared with the UK average, but 14t DM/ha recorded growth shows it was possible.

During the first year of assessment under the new grazing system, the level of concentrates fed fell from 2,047kg a head to 1,858kg a head, with moist feed use a cow falling from 1,450kg/year to 450kg/year.

The improvement in efficiency has yielded a significant financial gain. Adjusting the figures to ignore milk price rises, the average margin over purchased feed a cow increased 10% – up from £1,588 to £1,791. That produced a margin over purchased feed of 23.86p/litre compared with 22.11p/litre the previous year.

The overall margin over purchased feed rose from £4,304/ha to £4,728/ha.

Using grass more effectively

Using a plate meter to measure how much grass was actually being grown, and tackling how best to utilise that grass, was key to the management changes applied at the two farms.

“It wasn’t about growing more grass, but improving the use of what was already there. It involved improvements to grazing infrastructure through creating more manageable areas of grassland by dividing-up large fields. While also improving tracks so grass can be accessed in more challenging weather.

“We switched the emphasis of silage having the first take on grass. We turned this attitude on its head so we could change the whole process of managing the grazing, primarily for the cows, and then identify where the surpluses existed for silage making.”

“It wasn’t about growing more grass, but improving the use of what was already there. It involved improvements to grazing infrastructure through creating more manageable areas of grassland by dividing-up large fields. While also improving tracks so grass can be accessed in more challenging weather.”
Oliver Hall, Evolution Farming

Mr Hall says by changing the way grass was grazed, reducing the amount of grass that was being wasted through inefficient grazing, and being careful with levels of concentrate, especially when it only substituted the cheap grass, he has made some great improvements. Other challenges in terms of fertiliser planning and silage making have been easily overcome with good systematic planning and management.

Focus Farm

The Irwin family admit they have been surprised by how much more grass they can make use of on their farm on the Mull of Kintyre. As one of the two Focus Farms they have increased their cow numbers from 180 to 220 in the past year – and say better use of grass has been largely responsible.

“Measuring the grass has made us more focused about how we manage the grazing and how we can make better use of it. We’ve been surprised at just how much grass we do grow,” says Thomas Irwin.

“We’re keeping another 40 cows on the same amount of land. We had the replacements available and now the land can carry them.”

The farm, which has laid about 500 yards of tracks and is now dividing up fields with electric fencing to give more control over the grazing, used to shut up about 60ha for first-cut silage.

“Last year we prioritised the grass for the cows and whenever we felt we had surplus grass we made silage.”

Grass was measured fortnightly at the start of the season last year but by May and June it was measured every four or five days. Cows were grazed for up to three days maximum and then moved on.

“By the time the cows were moved the area had been grazed as low as we could get without compromising the land. At first we thought it would take a long time to recover but we had cows back on the same area within three weeks.

“We have a reseeding programme but now we’re going to reseed as and when we feel fields need it. That’s something we now feel much more in control of since we started measuring the grass,” adds Mr Irwin.

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