26 November 1999


Trying to increase milk

production without

increasing costs is a

challenge. But it is possible,

as one Somerset dairy farm

proves. James Garner reports

NOW the bank manager is off their backs, the Durstons can concentrate on their core business; dairy cows.

Until last year, battling against an overdraft was time-consuming and deflected attention from dairying. But some shrewd financial decisions – including selling a property – have allowed them to clear debts and change their focus.

Unfettered by an overdraft, the partnership of Gerald Durston and his son Keith are positive about their business future at Chestnut Farm, Vole Road, Mark, Highbridge. "We will come out of this recession flying," says Gerald.

Bold this might be, but their confidence may not be misplaced. Milk yields from their 95-cow black-and-white herd have improved from 5400 litres in August 1998 to 6352 litres in August this year – with 500 litres of that increase from forage.

In the last few years the business has been breaking even, but this year Gerald believes the partnership will make a profit, despite the falling milk price.

The farm has made an extra £6700 over the last 12 months, despite keeping two fewer cows. This increase has largely been achieved from forage – by improving grazing management – and as a result, feed costs have dropped by 0.5p a litre, says Keith.

"Its really about being flexible with your grazing area. Its a new practice to us, so this year has been very much trial and error. The plan is to refine what we did this year, so it is better planned next season."

It seems the cow performance too is unshackled, now that debts are not governing decisions but performance is. Having brought Keith into the partnership last April, they have shifted emphasis from making silage to grazing grass. They also decided to stop growing maize because of last years horrendous harvesting conditions on their heavy clay soils.

"This winter will test our decision about maize," says Gerald. "There are a few people around here who will be interested to see how we get on without it."

Their plan is to use grass silage as the main winter forage, which Keith says is probably a bit poorer quality than last years. This will be balanced with straights, such as rapeseed meal, soya and sugar beet pulp, and compound in the parlour.

The same quantity of grass silage still has to be made each summer because the partners are not looking to extend grazing and, therefore, need just as much winter feed. This summer, ryegrass sown after maize was used for silage, freeing-up grass for grazing. They also switched to paddock grazing from strip grazing, allowing cows to have bigger grazing areas.

Keith admits he had to learn quickly about grazing management techniques. "We werent consciously going for extended grazing but looking to use grass more effectively."

Cows were out by day last spring from April 5 and full-time 10 days later. Keiths grazing plan was not really rotational, he says. "I would look at the grass in paddocks in front of cows and decide whether to speed up the rotation or slow it down and move cows to where there was most grass."

He didnt follow the platemeter approach, preferring to judge grass by eye and using a measuring stick to determine bite length. "I look for the sward to have a decent bite length – between 10-16cm for cows."

When grass growth outstrips cows appetites, he mows excess and wraps it in round bales that can be used as buffer later.

This spring cows were turned out to graze 16.6ha (41 acres) until the finish of first cut silage expanded the area from mid May. With hindsight this was not enough grazing land in early season and next spring Keith expects to extend this to 22-22.6ha (55-56 acres). If he feels he can take more land for grazing then he will.

The aim for next spring and summer is to feel more organised, says Keith. "I hope to have more contingency plans in place."

He already has one in his mind – growing an extra 2ha (5 acres) of turnips. "Turnips came in at the right time this year, when we had the July drought." Next summer some extra acres will be sown, but he plans to stagger drilling so they last longer and give greater security against grass shortages.


&#8226 Improve grassland.

&#8226 More grazing.

&#8226 Higher Margins.

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