Opinion: Looking for balance with split block-calving

As we move towards the annual peak of British milk production, I find myself asking, what does the future hold for spring block-calving herds in the UK?

As a new entrant to dairy farming, I have only ever worked in spring-calving systems until now, where we are currently setting up a split-block system.

This is partly to maximise the available infrastructure on our rented farm, but largely because of milk buyer requirements for a more level milk profile.

See also: Block v year-round calving – which is best for you?

About the author

liz hainesLiz Haines
Columnist, Farmers Weekly

Liz Haines is in a joint venture on a dairy farm in Staffordshire, converting the all-year-round calving herd to a split block-calving grazing system.

Read more articles by Liz Haines

I always believed that spring calving was the best system to enable us to reach our goals – with lower capital requirements, plus a better work-life balance.

Provided we could achieve a low enough cost of production, spring-block calving seemed like a sure way to make an excellent return on capital and grow our personal equity, even in times of low milk prices like 2014 – our first full year of contract farming.

Since then, the market seems to be pushing against spring milk more strongly every year.

Today, milk contracts are hard to come by under any circumstances, but getting a contract for a spring-block profile is almost impossible.

Seasonality penalties on spring milk have also become stronger.

In Ireland, where the spring-block system dominates due to the mild climate, recent news of co-op Glanbia’s proposed “temporary peak supply management” measures, to be brought in next year, have been extremely unwelcome news.

Farmers will receive 30% less for litres produced over their reference volume in April, May and June, as Glanbia does not have processing capacity for the extra litres.

For farmers who have invested in expansion, and new entrants, who are to be limited to 100 cows, it is a severe blow.

They will now be incentivised to produce milk at a more expensive time of year, but will the reward be enough?

Although AHDB analysis has shown that in the UK, autumn block-calvers generally receive a slightly higher milk price than year-round and spring block-calvers, the latter have the lowest cost of production a litre.

When you factor in the extra workload and cost to produce the autumn milk, is it really worth it?

The key caveat is that, across all systems, the best operators are able to achieve comparable levels of profit, suggesting that success comes down to business management, rather than system.

The spring-calving system has many benefits – lower inputs, cows at grass (something that is becoming increasingly important for consumer perception), and the Christmas dry period.

But due to market pressures, these benefits may no longer be accessible to as many, unless they are prepared to be absolutely ruthless about cost control, and not chase a higher annual average milk price.

It is tempting to say this is due to the dominance of the liquid market in the UK, but it is really processing capacity that is the issue.

And even if there was new investment in processing, it would still be more efficient for the factories to operate year-round.

On our farm, we hope that split block-
calving will give us a balance between the efficiencies of block calving and a more level milk supply.

We won’t know until we’ve done a full year with the two blocks in place. But I will always grieve my Christmas break.

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