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22-02-2016

South Wales Dairy Conference

Finding opportunity during a challenging time - this was the theme running through the recent South Wales Dairy Conference, organised by ForFarmers, HSBC and CARA. The speakers pulled on their experiences in business, consultancy and on farm, both here and abroad, to paint a picture of the efficient dairy business of the future.

Success ‘the Welsh way’

There is no point having a dairy system that makes a lot of money when milk prices are high, if it can’t survive when they are low, said Iwan Price from CARA, especially in what seems to be an increasingly volatile market.

CARA correlated the cost of production among its clients, and compared three systems - high, medium and low yields - to draw conclusions about the most profitable approach. Whilst it was clear that money could be made, and lost, in all three systems, their figures demonstrated that the medium yield ‘Welsh way’, which sees farmers make the most of grass during the summer and house cows in the winter, could be as profitable as both other systems. “Our work shows that the biggest factor in dairy farm profitability is not the system but the person who manages it,” Iwan concluded. 

Feeding the calf

Alex Bach, ICREA Research Professor and Director of the Department of Ruminant Production of IRTA, in Spain, looked at how feeding in the transition period affects the future performance of the calf.

Seventy percent of the gestation period of a calf coincides with lactation. The resulting competition for nutrients between the placenta and the mammary gland will have impact on the cow that develops from the calf.

The long-term modification of the metabolic function of the offspring during fetal development can occur through epigenetic changes. Without the right nutrition at specific stages during the calf’s development (both pre- and early postnatal), certain genes may not be ‘switched on’ and permanent changes in the metabolism of that cow might occur.

It is likely that the cow of today, with high milk yield but also reproductive and metabolic challenges, is not only a consequence of genetic selection, but also the result of the way her dam was fed in late pregnancy and the way she was fed early after birth.

 Get the best from your forage

This challenging time in the dairy industry could be seen as a time of opportunity, said Adrian Smith, Cheshire dairy farmer and winner of the Cream Awards 2015 Forage Manager of the Year. 

 “Developing our business as a result of pressure has meant doubling herd numbers and increasing milk from forage. We now have an average yield from our 200 cows of 8,698 litres/cow/year, with litres from forage at 5,325/cow/year,” he explained.

 “We never underestimate the value of the high quality forage we make – the clamps and paddocks are our bank and our pantry. All silage clamps are carefully mapped and labelled, and all big bale silage is carefully numbered, with a record kept of the paddock it was made in. We use this information to make sure the right animals get the right quality feed, but also as a tool for deciding where and when to reseed.”

 Adrian also highlighted the importance of good soil management in forage making. “Treat the land with respect and it will pay you back,” he said. “Aerate and subsoil where you need to, and control traffic on paddocks. Time your re-seeds and harvests, especially maize, with an eye on the needs of the soil. And don’t forget the importance of people, either. Work with your contractor, praise a job well done and, crucially, pay him on time.”

 “The biggest threat to any business is complacency,” Adrian concluded. “Always strive to do things better, ask yourself, and others, how you can improve and use this information to move your business forward.”

 Effective protocols

In 2014 Philip Halhead, Lancashire dairy farmer and managing director of Norbreck Genetics Ltd, was awarded a Tesco Sustainable Dairy Group scholarship to study leadership and management in large dairy businesses in North America. And what he discovered can help the development of efficient large dairy herds in the UK.

 “As dairy units get bigger, leadership and management skills become increasingly important,” he explained. “Managing people is a skill that can be learnt, it’s not something you have to be born with.”

 Philip suggested that learning to delegate is critical to success as a business gets bigger, as is developing a clear picture of the future shape of the business. “Successful leaders focus on managing the business and the people involved, not on the day to day issues.”

And, when it comes to managing larger herds, Philip found that having effective protocols was essential. “Consistency and routine are good for cows and staff, so having well thought out, simple, protocols can have a huge impact on performance and costs,” he concluded.