NZ way appropriate for UK?
The value of grazed grass to
cut production costs
was keenly debated at
the Royal Association of
British Dairy Farmers annual
conference at Malvern,
Worcs. Jessica Buss and
Sue Rider report
ON-FARM discussion group meetings have a vital role to play to improve transfer of new technology to farmers.
This was a point upon which all present agreed at the RABDF debate "The New Zealand approach is not appropriate for the UK". But on the value of the NZ methods opinion was less clear, although those against the motion shouted loudest, said chairman Mike Wilkinson, of Leeds University.
Speaking for the motion, Malcolm Gibb, of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, North Wyke, questioned the need to import NZ consultants.
"Is their experience, and the way it has been presented, as the universal panacea to our problems, appropriate?" said Mr Gibb. "Are New Zealanders really in the position to tell us how to manage our high input cows at grazed grass?
"Their knowledge did not need to be imported – we share many problems with NZ dairy producers, but those could be solved by research in the UK and by UK advisers. If we have a lesson to learn it is the value of communication and discussion groups," maintained Mr Gibbs.
Speaking against the motion was Cornish dairy farmer Ben Mead, who hopes careful rationing of grazed grass will enable him to feed no concentrates at all to his cows this year. Under his low cost system production costs are less than 10p/litre. "I have been operating the New Zealand approach for the past four years and I am unapologetically enthusiastic about it.
"The New Zealand system aims to generate as much profit per unit capital invested." Maximum use of grass made that possible because when grazed it was one-third the cost of silage, and one-seventh the cost of concentrates, said Mr Mead.
"People in this country think low cost equals low output, and this is often the case. But to make the system fly you must have high output and low costs , and only the focused can do that. It means investing where the high returns are." Using fertiliser inputs strategically to extend the grazing season gives a high response, with an extra kg DM costing just 2.5p, he said.
"Investment in back fencing costs only £10/400m length – yet the technique increases grass DM by 27%, a huge return.
"Grass-fed cows do not yield as highly, yet no one has demonstrated a clear link between high yields and profit. For three months last summer our cows were producing £5 a cow worth of milk a day for just 45p, allowing us to generate high profits.
"With 78% of the cows feed intake coming from grazed grass, I have reduced my variable costs to 22% of gross income, and fixed costs to 30% of gross income.
"I can only conclude that the NZ approach is not appropriate to the UK because of peoples resistance to change, and their refusal to adopt low cost systems."
How did the audience respond?
lJohn Moffitt, RABDF president: "We are talking about the UK here, other areas are not as privileged as Cornwall."
lJim Harrison, dairy farmer, Sussex: "New Zealand consultants have done a good job because they have resurrected technology transfer.
"Too many UK dairy farmers are mesmerised by yield rather than profit and one of the problems with higher input farming is that it tends to attract high overhead costs."
lCled Thomas, SAC: "What is important here is the New Zealand approach – the partnership between farmers, researchers and advisers. Our research community has a duty to ensure that the information it works on can be translated to industry."
lSinclair Mayne, Hillsborough, Northern Ireland: "Look at grass and see how it fits into the equation on your own farm – there is a middle road for grass and no need to get polarised at the extremes."
lMike Lemmy, Dorset dairy farmer: "The average Milkminder producer achieves 20% of his output off grazed grass, Ben Mead is getting 80%, and 49% of our cows diet is now grazed grass. In our situation this adds 2p/litre to our profit."
Is the New Zealand approach appropriate for the UK? It has helped Ben Mead (right) to reduce production costs to below 10p/litre.