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Efficiency improvements and forage driving performance

Sector News Sector News27-12-2019

Since returning to the family farm four years ago, Somerset based dairy producer, Dan Britten, has implemented changes at Green Farm to maximise milk from forage and improve the overall efficiency of the family business.

“We want to secure the long-term sustainability and profitability of the farm and in order to do that, we have had to make changes to how we grow and utilise forage, the farm’s infrastructure, fertility and land use,” explains Dan. “Working within the constraints of my budget, I have two key goals I would like to achieve in the coming year and that is to produce 50% of our milk from forage and get feed costs down to 6ppl. If we can achieve these two things, I think we can sustain a profitable dairy business that will succeed in an uncertain market.”

It is this drive and forward-thinking approach that has been formally recognised in this year’s national Excellence in Farming Awards, where Dan was announced as the national winner in the Dairy Efficiency category.

The Britten's - Award winning farmers

Taking time to reassess

Dan runs Green Farm in partnership with his father Stephen and wife Ester, and he manages a herd of 290 cows, recording a rolling average of 9,500 litres of milk, at 4% butterfat and 3.3% protein, supplying Tesco on a Muller contract. When conditions allow, cows are grazed from late-March to mid-November to make the most of grazed grass.

“The business is run on a 600-acre platform, with around 130 acres dedicated to maize, 80 acres to cereals, 200 to permanent pasture and the balance as short-term grass leys,” explains Dan. “The farm is quite high up, with land ranging from 800 to 1000 feet above sea level, and this does pose its challenges.”

Dan returned to the family dairy farm four years ago, having previously worked for Tesco as Head of Agriculture. “My time away gave me a good insight into the commercial world, which has proved very useful on the farm,” says Dan. “When I returned home, it became apparent that changes needed to be made and I pushed for us to regain our focus on the core dairy farming business and really look at improving sustainability, starting with producing more milk from grazed grass and preserved forages.”

Tough decisions and new approaches

Traditionally, Green Farm had produced 60 acres of high-quality seed potatoes, but Dan decided to cut potato production. “It was a tough call to make as we have a long history in potatoes, but last year we stopped,” continues Dan. “This side of the business took up a lot of time and effort, involved renting extra land and ultimately wasn’t proving profitable.”

In order to efficiently produce the very best forage, Dan looked at ways to improve the quality of grass on the farm.   

“A few years ago, we started to be much more proactive with our reseeding policy,” explains Dan. “We are now aiming to reseed 20% of the grazing platform on an annual basis. We also soil test all our land to assess soil quality and identify nutrient deficiencies so that we can be more targeted with inputs.

“Records on our AgriNet software highlight stark improvements in terms of tonnes of dry matter produced between new, reseeded pasture and the old, so we know we are heading in the right direction.”

Cows grazing at Green Farm in Somerset

Investing in infrastructure

To extend the grazing window, one of Dan’s initial actions on returning home was to develop an extensive system of tracks, as well as a paddock-based grazing system.

“We want the cows out on grass for as long as possible, and with the right grass covers in front of them,” explains Dan. “We used to have two, short tracks but now the system extends right across our grazing platform and virtually all paddocks can be accessed individually.

“Our paddock system is rotationally grazed and when required we sub-divide each paddock with electric fencing and mob-graze a specific segment within that paddock. Grass covers are measured every week with a plate meter and as part of the knowledge transfer work I do with my local grazing group, this data is shared with fellow group members to help benchmark grass performance across the group’s farms.”

Other investments have also been made to cow housing, to maximise the space available on the farm.

“It is all about making the most of what we’ve got,” says Dan. “I don’t have the capacity to put up another cow shed, so we have invested in retrofitting sand cubicles, knocked down internal walls in cow sheds to improve ventilation and installed LED lighting. We have also lined our feed troughs with a smooth screed to help keep intakes as high as possible.”

Making the most of forage

Three years ago, milk from forage stood at around 30%, but this has now increased to 42%, with Dan firmly focussed on his 50% target.

“The key for us is to produce high quality forage and then make sure our cows are producing the most from it,” states Dan. “We take a multi-cut approach to silaging, taking an earlier cut in mid, to late April, and then three or four other cuts later in the year. After each cut, we are out spreading with slurry right behind the forage harvester to help kickstart grass regrowth.

“The herd is split into two groups depending on a cow’s stage of lactation, with the higher yielders fed a TMR ration at M+30, comprising of maize and grass silage, a blend provided by ForFarmers and homegrown alkagrain as a source of protein and starch. Chopped straw is used in the diet if more structural fibre is required. The other group are on a simpler and lower M+ plus ration as they progress through the latter stages of their lactation and are fed later cut grass silage, removing the need for straw as a source of fibre. Like the fresher cows they too are fed to yield through the parlour.”

An automatic segregation gate was installed on the farm to sort the two groups post-milking during the grazing season, letting the lower yielders straight out to grass, whilst keeping the higher yielders back to buffer feed before going out. 

Clamp Management at Green Farm in Somerset

Block calving and fertility

Traditionally the herd at Green Farm has been all year calving, but Dan is now looking to run an Autumn block system.

“I have been ‘flirting’ with the idea of block calving for a while, and decided to put in a two-month calving gap two years ago,” says Dan. “It proved to be a really useful couple of months and gave everyone on the farm more focus and allowed us to take a more targeted approach to completing specific tasks around the farm.

“This summer, I was lucky enough to have a group of 30 AHDB employees come to the farm as part of a two-day staff training programme. I had 30 specialists complete a SWOT strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis on the farm, and the consistent feedback was that an Autumn block calving approach would best suit our system.”

Four years ago, heifers were first calving down at around 27 months, but now they are averaging 24.7 months and Dan is looking to drive this age down further, as well as improve overall herd fertility.

“A real benefit has been the recent implementation of collars to measure rumination and cow activity. This is helping us to spot those cows showing more subtle signs of heat, that might usually have been missed, as well as identify cows showing early signs of potential illness – allowing us to intervene early and prevent a sub-clinical issue becoming a more serious, clinical health problem,“ adds Dan.

While the last four and a half years have proved to be incredibly busy and challenging, things are starting to head in the right direction.

“Over just the last year, yields have gone up by an average of 1,200 litres” concludes Dan. “Our milk from forage figures are strong and feed costs are currently at 6.5ppl, so we are in a good position and I am confident that with continued focus, we can carry on improving the productivity of the herd and the efficiency of the overall business.”