Brakes on milk output to avoid super-levy risk

13 March 1998

Brakes on milk output to avoid super-levy risk

With the end of the quota

year looming, putting the

brakes on milk production

has been a priority at

Dowrich. Better that, say the

Lees, than face the prospect

of a hefty super-levy bill.

Tim Relf reports

WHEN the milk year ends on Mar 31, the aim is to be between 1.5% and 2% over quota.

Drastic measures have been called for, with a 4% overshoot in the offing not so long ago.

Nearly a dozen cows have been culled, chiefly on poor breeding and milking grounds. Some had failed to hold to service several times, others were getting old or were consistently poor performers in the hygiene department.

One, in particular, was an obvious contender, says Anthony Lee. In February, her count was 5,319,000, twice as high as the second-worst performer. A previous recording had shown it to be over 9m.

"It is surprising the difference one bad animal can make, especially if she is a high yielder. This cow was probably contributing 10% to the herds total cell count." And that was something which, in a climate of ever-increasing demands for milk quality, was unacceptable.

"If we had kept these dozen cows," says Anthony, "all they would have done was eaten food and produced milk we did not want. The feed versus milk equation did not stack up any more."

As regards fertility, some had failed to hold to service four or five times. This can only go on for so long, considering vet bills. "We pay by the hour – although sometimes it seems like by the minute."

The other big step the Lees have taken was to dry off 16 cows between a week and a month early, at a cost of £12 a head. Fingers crossed, none have shown any sign of mastitis yet.

Rations have also been tweaked to cut output. The in-parlour sugar beet feed is down 0.5kg a head. The energy content of the out-of-parlour grub has been cut, too, partly because the Axient consultant reckons a few cows are a little on the fat side. They are now getting fewer potatoes and fodder beet. "The things they like best," says Anthony.

Too much tinkering with the feeding policy, however, can be ill-advised. "What happens then on Apr 1, when the new milk year starts and we want them back in full flow?"

But overall, output should now be back on course. About 20,000 litres of clean quota was recently sourced in a back-to-back deal, taking the farms total (part owned, part leased) to 1.23m litres.

February production was nearly 92,000 litres, which, when adjusted for butterfat – Dowrichs butterfat base is 4.22% – takes it to just under 93,000 litres.

To end the year 1.5% above quota, therefore, March output can go as high as 95,857 litres. Thats about 6390 litres a collection (every other day). "Results for early March show we are about on target although, with one collection at 6000 litres, we could, if anything, have put the brakes on too hard.

"But no more animals are due to dry off and there are a few to calve in the coming days, so output should edge up. It is not a precise science, after all – we cant undry the dry ones or bring the culled ones back to life."

The other big question now, says Anthony, is the output of other dairy farmers, with the national overshoot determining thresholds and, therefore, superlevy. "The risk factor," as he calls it.

Three cohorts have also been taken under the BSE cull at Dowrich, further reducing output. Looking ahead, a less strict culling policy is planned in a bid to build up numbers and combat the falling milk price.

Januarys average price was 22.65p/litre, compared with 26.21p/litre a year earlier. (And there could be another 1p/litre to come off yet, fears Anthony.) Over the same period, cow numbers fell 10% to 231. "Our overheads like machinery and labour certainly have not shrunk at the same rate.

"In culling slightly fewer in future, we wont be missing out on lucrative cull values. The latest ones to go on the over 30-month scheme made the £311 maximum, less deductions of about £20 for fees and transport.

"You have to sell three old ones to pay for a new one now," says Anthony. "Two years ago, it was a two-for-one swap.

"Having more cows will mean the need for more quota, so we will have to address this earlier in the year. Lease a little bit each month, perhaps. That way we might not, necessarily, get the lowest price, but we wont end up having to pay the highest, either."

As regards the rest of the current milk year, an early turnout – and with it less reliance on silage – could cut butterfats, further cutting output.

But talk of turnout is still a little premature at Dowrich, despite the arrival of spring-like weather. With silage plentiful, the date the cows first get sun on their backs will be governed by ground conditions and the weather rather than being a decision forced by a lack of feed.

Last year, the cows went out on Mar 24. "We would like to repeat that. Already there is enough grass to see it waving when the wind blows." &#42

A little bit of what you like makes you, er, fat… Anthony Lee has cut the herds fodder beet ration, with a few cows a little on the overweight side. It will also help reduce milk output, a priority at this time of year.


Culling criteria:

&#8226 Poor breeding.

&#8226 Poor hygiene.

&#8226 Low yield/milk value.

&#8226 Old.

&#8226 Poor fitness/mobility.

Cut output by:

&#8226 Drying off.

&#8226 Culling.

&#8226 Cutting feed.


&#8226 A 235ha (580-acre) family farm in mid-Devon, run by Anthony Lee, his father Michael and his brothers, Roger and Christopher.

&#8226 Dairy herd of 220 Holstein Friesians averaging 5800 litres a year.

&#8226 Outdoor pigs reared from 220 sows.

&#8226 Potatoes grown on the farm and on rented land.

&#8226 Strong emphasis on co-operative marketing.

The countdown to turnout is under way at Dowrich – but with silage still in plentiful supply, it is not imperative that the cows go out early.

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