Four-way cross breeding and stringent grass management helps dairy costs

Increases in milk production costs have hit every dairy producer hard, but a Hampshire farmer is still managing to produce milk at a total cost of just 17p/litre by making better use of grass and slurry.

Chris Martin told visitors to a recent LKL Services farm walk that the key had been producing more sustainable and resilient cows through cross breeding at Manor Farm, Exton, Southampton.

Creating a low-cost cow by crossing a high PIN Holstein to a Jersey, then a Friesian, then a Swedish Red and then back to a Holstein has resulted in cows averaging 7400 litres from 1.9t of concentrates. But Mr Martin said it had not always been this way.

“Previously, we were milking high PIN Holsteins three times daily producing 9200 litres a cow. However, buildings were bursting at the seams. So in 1996 we conducted a spring-calving, low-concentrate, New Zealand-style trial. And although Holsteins milked well, maintaining body condition and block calving was difficult.

“Therefore, we decided to use a four-way cross to introduce some hybrid vigour and then put up a new shed, rotary parlour and tracks linking the 45 new paddocks.”

Hampshire Cattle Breeders’ Steve Michel, said a successful breeding programme had been key to success at Manor Farm. And with Mr Martin turning to a grass-based, spring calving system, fitting breeding around grass growth had been critical.

Medium cows were needed with functional udders and exceptional legs and feet with sufficient strength for early and late grazing, said Mr Mitchel.

“Two bulls are used from each breed a ‘legs and feet improver’ bull and an ‘udder improver’. Hybrid vigour has also been created by cross breeding, resulting in a 6% production increase and at least a 10% rise in health from hybrid vigour. Now cows are living longer, mastitis levels have reduced and cows are getting back in calf quicker.”

Oestrus detection ran at 90% in the herd with conception rates between 50 and 60%, said Mr Martin. “Two people check cows four times a day for 20 minutes each time. All heifers are synchronised and served to dairy semen and run with Angus bulls. A basic recording system has been important in recording the cow, date when served, and lameness and mastitis levels.”

Measuring grass weekly was also important in calculating the extra feed needed to supplement cow’s diet, with a plate meter used to measure length and growth rate. But it was important to be three to four weeks ahead, warned farm consultant Chris White.

“This year milk yields have been down due to poor grass growth, so higher levels of concentrates are being fed. Three feeds a paddock is the optimum and all cows are housed in one group not only for efficiency of labour, but also to promote better grass growth.

“It is also important when to decide to shut up grass. At the end of the season you should be looking to have 2-3in left,” he says

A new 40-stall rotary parlour had been important in cutting time spent milking and improving quality of life of the workers, said Mr Martin. “The aim is to milk 480 cows in under 2.5 hours in the morning and even quicker in the afternoon, this includes fore-stripping.”

Cows are averaging 7800 litres, with most coming from grass, grazing from February to November. For this reason Mr Martin says his cost of production for year ending 31 March 2008 was 17p/litre, including rent and depreciation. Budgeted costs for the coming year are up at 22p/lire due to feed, fertiliser and steel costs, he says.

But despite rises in fertiliser prices, Mr Martin is making a £50,000 saving by slurry management. “All passageways are scrapped automatically into a slurry channel. A separator is used and the solid is composted for arable. Twice a year the liquid tank is emptied using an umbilical system. Slurry analysis is undertaken to ensure only the necessary amount of artificial fertiliser is applied.”