3 May 2002



A larger herd and the economies of scale that come

with it, could be the route to securing a viable future

on a high yielding unit. Jeremy Hunt reports

COW numbers could be doubled to about 400 on a Cheshire unit, even though there will be times when the fluctuating milk price erodes all its profit.

Richard Ratcliffe, who runs the Airway Holstein herd at Hill Farm, Nantwich, believes the roller-coaster ride of the milk price is something producers must get used to.

"There will be times when the price is good and a profit will be made. Then, there will be times when the price falls to a level where there wont be any margin," says Mr Ratcliffe.

He agrees with the latest thinking of consultants who say profitability projections cannot be based on a 20p/litre milk price, but must break even when milk price falls.

"Producers will lose money when the price plunges, but will hopefully be in a position to recoup those losses when it recovers."

He has made an interesting observation on his costings during recent milk price fluctuations. "I noticed that when milk price went back up to 20p, we were doing far better in terms of margin than we were when the milk price dropped to 20p two years ago.

"The reason for that is between 20p and 16p we took out a big ruck of extra costs and hadnt put them back in. We were in a far more efficient mode of production."

His son, Hugh intends to join the farm partnership in about 18-months time after completing his degree course at Newcastle University – followed by time spent looking at US dairying.

The family are already discussing the herd expansion plan to allow him to return to the business. But the way the farm has efficiently absorbed an additional 70 cows recently, bringing it up to 200 head, has encouraged Mr Ratcliffes vision of a 400-cow unit.

"We had reached the stage of 140 cows, giving 9500-10,000 litres on 3t of concentrates and were at a crossroads. We decided to increase to 210 cows, to put only two-thirds of the herd to Holstein bulls and to have youngstock and dry cows managed off the farm.

Mr Ratciffe, who also manages two other units, employs a herdsman, tractor driver and student. "I consider myself as the relief man. But despite increasing cow numbers, the existing team managed to absorb the additional workload.

"We did convert cow accommodation from loose housing back to sand-bedded cubicles, which reduced mastitis cases and saved time in the parlour – by being able to dry-wipe before milking.

"We saved on the labour input involved in youngstock rearing and although wed switched from calving 12 cows a month, to about 24 cows a month, the expansion didnt seem like twice the work.

"I was amazed by the level of improved efficiency. The workload had increased, but not in proportion to the number of extra milkers. Its certainly encouraged us in our deliberations over future herd expansion plans."

The farms 113ha (310 acres) is in four blocks of widely varying soil types. But the proposed increase in cow numbers will not necessitate buying or renting more land.

"Even if we have to buy-in the maintenance requirement for 200 extra cows, when its split over 400 its really peanuts." He bases his calculations on cows producing 9500 litres and leaving a £1400 margin.

Buying-in good quality forage – both maize and grass – is not regarded as a problem. The herd, which is just outside the Holstein breeds top 1% on genetic merit, grazes until early December and faces a winter of less than 90-days.

This spring cows have been grazing since Mar 5 and the low yielders were fully turned out on Mar 23.

Fresh grass – including early Italian ryegrass mixtures for spring cutting – is zero-grazed for high yielders from late February until well into November.

Cows are fed a flat-rate system. "I dont feed concentrates for milk production, I feed concentrates to make silage last and for cows to have an ad-lib diet.

"Were feeding a mixed ration every day of the year. It is based on 75-85% maize silage, plus brewers grains, a wheat-soya blend, sugar beet pulp, Sopralin for protein, Megalac for energy and a high-spec mineral. In addition, cows receive a flat-rate of 3.5kg of a 24% protein concentrate in the parlour.

"Feed rates are based on a 40-litre cow eating 24kg dry matter of the ration. When we begin zero-grazing we dont alter the concentrate fraction, but replace silage with fresh grass. We start to save 3t of silage a day as soon as we begin feeding fresh material.

"We have to zero graze. We only have 25ha of grazeable grass on this farm for 200 cows."

Latest NMR figures show the herd performing well on its ration with average yield just under 10,100 litres, at 3.7% fat and 3.15% protein.

"We have just moved to the Milk Group after some time selling on a compositional contract. Milk quality reflects the diet we feed – high maize inclusion, high level of concentrates and brewers grains all have a milk quality diluting effect. But its a concession we feel is justified," says Mr Ratcliffe. &#42

Increasing cow numbers has not added to the workload as expected, so Richard Ratcliffe is now planning a further increase.

&#8226 More cows.

&#8226 Preparing for price changes.

&#8226 Improving labour efficiency.

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