Mike Allwood is owner-occupier of a 82ha (200-acre) farm near Nantwich, Cheshire. The 175-cow dairy herd block calves during May and June. Mike is director of Farm Produce Marketing, based on the farm, which manufactures and sells Orchard Maid frozen yogurt, and puts packs of Cheshire milk onto airline breakfast trays.
EVERY winter we spend some time having a good think. I used to go and hibernate in the office myself, emerging haggard but triumphant two weeks later with the grand new plan.
These days I try to involve my staff, since they are the ones who are going to have to do the work.
The process involves three stages: Questioning the system to see if we have got the basics right. Examining performance over the previous year – what worked, what went wrong and what can we learn? And then producing a plan for the coming year and beyond.
Regarding the system, we looked at one area in particular: The calving pattern. Should we continue to calve cows in May, June and July? There are advantages in this; cows calve outside, which is better for cow and calf health, and it means there are no calving yards needed. We also make good use of buildings, with baby calves reared in the cubicles. Quota management is also easier, with cows going dry at the end of the quota year, while calves and barrens traditionally fetch the highest prices in May and June. We also get high milk price.
But there are also a number of disadvantages: We cannot make the best use of spring grass with cows going dry, and conception rates are poor which is linked to mid-summer energy shortage. Silage is expensive to make as feeding often starts in August. Winter performance is sensitive to silage quality, and it is difficult to manage autumn grass when there are no dry cows around to mop up.
Until now I feel that the pros have outweighed the cons. However, recent changes have made it more difficult to justify May-to-July calving in comparison to winter or spring calving. The milk price differential is not so great and calf and barren prices are all over the place. Most importantly, the energy gap, which caused our milk output to dip and fertility to suffer in the crucial late summer period, seem to have been exacerbated by dry summers and modern genetics, which have created cows which milk off their back.
There would seem to be a strong argument to shift calving to mid winter or early spring, putting the lactation curve in line with grass growth. *
Mike Allwood and his staff have been planning; they are considering whether to shift the calving pattern to mid winter or early spring.