Making the most of grass to maintain a profitable dairy system
Adopting a low-cost dairy system is proving a great success at Bicton College Farm, Devon, as Jane Brown discovers.
Running a college farm has many challenges, not least having to deal with hundreds of teenagers on a daily basis. So opting for a simple dairy system sounds like a pretty sensible idea - and it is working well at Bicton College Farm in Budleigh Salterton, Devon.
The farm switched to a low input system 11 years ago and started cross-breeding Holstein Friesian cows with Jerseys, says farm manager Paul Redmore.
About four years ago, they decided to introduce Ayrshires as a third cross, to boost hybrid vigour.
“They fit well in our system as a native breed, adding a bit of size, with good yield and fertility,” says Mr Redmore.
The 200 cows block calve in February and March, and have exceptional fertility, with the cows first served via artificial insemination, and four pedigree Red Devon bulls running as sweepers.
“Our first service conception rate is 68 per cent, and we have a calving index of 363 days,” says Mr Redmore.
“The hybrid vigour makes it a lot easier to keep a very tight calving pattern - they bull really strongly and we observe them five times a day, so our submission rates are high.”
They are extremely long-lived as well. “We only have a 15 per cent replacement rate, mostly culling empty cows, with the odd one on cell counts. Mastitis and lameness both run at 30 per cent of the national average.”
Last year, the farm upgraded its tracks to reduce stone bruising and at the latest mobility scoring, only 8 per cent were lame, with none scoring more than one.
“We foot trim as needed. I think we trimmed 11 cows last year.”
With well-drained sandy soils near the coast and at 60ft (18m) above sea level, the farm is ideal for out-wintering stock.
The cows graze all year round, and only the calves are housed until weaning at about eight weeks of age.
“Grass grows here for about 11 months of the year,” says Mr Redmore.
Mr Redmore grows 22 hectares (55 acres) of maize for silage, with 20ha (50 acres) of grass on off-lying ground, which is cut twice. The first cut goes into a clamp, while the second is baled. Last year, first cut grass silage averaged 31 per cent dry matter, 11.2MJ/kg of metabolisable energy, and 15 per cent protein, with second cut testing at very similar levels, but with higher dry matter.
The maize averaged 32.7 per cent starch and yielded 40-45t/ha.
“We’re in an ideal area for growing maize”, says Mr Redmore. “We trial 200 varieties on 800 plots of NIAB, so I get first look at up-and-coming varieties, which is helpful.”
He feeds the cows twice a day in the winter after milking, and considers the period between calving and conception to be the most critical time.
Mr Redmore says on the type of system he is running ‘it’s all about fertility’.
In the first week of March, the cows were receiving 6kg of a 24 per cent protein blend, 15kg of grass silage, and 15kg of maize silage.
“They are eating 10-12kg of fresh grass, and we feed a flat herd ration. They will stay on the 6kg blend until they’re back in calf.”
The cows average 5,500 litres, with 3,500 litres from forage.
“Normally we aim for 4,000 litres or more, but last year was so dry. On our sandy soil we often get quite poor grass growth in a dry summer.”
To reduce the risk of a feed shortage, Mr Redmore grows forage rape to graze in the summer, and sometimes feeds silage in July if the weather is dry.
“We are averaging 4.7 per cent butterfat and 3.6 per cent protein. We’re on a Dairy Crest liquid contract and the butterfat bonus negates the seasonality discounts we suffer.”
Over the past five years, Mr Redmore has grown the herd from 170 to 200 cows without increasing the farm size or fertiliser use.
“We are producing 30 per cent more milk off the same area, simply through better grass management,” he says.
Grass leys are reseeded every five or six years and a number of trial varieties, including a New Zealand mix for cold weather growth, are grown.
“We use a lot of Aber varieties and introduced chicory ryegrass two years ago, which just keeps growing in a drought.
“It’s very deep rooted, so captures nitrogen before it leaches into the aquifer below.”
The cows are paddock grazed, moving on to fresh ground every 12 hours after milking. Mr Redmore measures grass growth to plan the rotation.
“The cross-breds graze really well,” he says. “They crop the pasture down really tight, which keeps the sward quality up.
“They are very small, averaging just 525kg liveweight, which means you can keep the stocking rate up and they don’t poach the ground too much.”
The system works well when everything is going right. “But it takes a lot of attention to detail,” he says. “Cell counts can be an issue in the autumn, as all the cows are going stale at the same time.”
The cows dry off by December 16, giving the three farm staff a good break before calving starts on February 1.
The dry cows receive a dry cow treatment and are tested for antiobiotic requirements.
“The students do all of that. It’s good to have the block calving because they can focus on specific learning points at different times of the year.”
Mr Redmore inseminates heifers with Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) semen to produce replacements, which calve at two years.
“Dairy bull calves go to the slaughterhouse, and we keep about 30 Devon cross-breds to finish, selling the rest if we’re not down with TB, which we are about 50 per cent of the time.”
With so many students and visitors to the site, biosecurity can be difficult to maintain.
“We vaccinate against any risks such as Leptospirosis, BVD and Orf in sheep,” says Mr Redmore.
He has identified some Johne’s in the herd, so moves calves as soon as possible, feeding dairy calves powdered milk and beef or bull calves whole milk.
The farm is also in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone, so Mr Redmore has had to increase slurry storage capacity to comply with the rules.
“The cows are only producing slurry while feeding and waiting to be milked, which is 20 per cent of their time, so we needed 400cu.m of storage.
“We built a 500cu.m covered concrete store, which is gravity fed through slats in the collecting area.”
With the help of a Catchment Sensitive Farming grant, he also roofed the collecting yard and feed area to reduce the amount of water entering the slurry, and concreted the adjoining track to prevent leaching. In total, the works cost £122,000.
“We probably won’t see any money back on that, but we had to do it anyway,” he says.
However, he should see a rapid return on energy saving equipment investment, installed as part of the Earth Centre - a renewable technology centre unveiled at the end of February.
It produces electricity through solar PV panels, with hot water produced from solar thermal panels, an air source heat pump and a woodchip boiler.
The dairy benefits from renewable electricity and hot water, while a new heat recovery unit on the ice bank and a variable vacuum pump will save £2,000 a year.
“We got a 40 per cent grant for those, and at a cost of £15,000, the payback will be less than five years.
“The next step is rainwater harvesting - now we have a lot of roofed area we would like to use the water for washing down.
“We already recycle the cooling water from the bulk tank and if we can put in a borehole, we could halve our water costs.”
When taking all expenditure into account, the farm has made a profit for the past six years, ranging from £10,000 to £30,000, says Mr Redmore.
“That’s not a lot, but being a college farm adds £30,000-£40,000 a year in extra consumables, breakages and labour to teach the students.”
So how has the low input system contributed to those profits?
“We make 3p/litre margin after all costs - with the milk price where it is, we could make more with higher yields.
“But if milk prices drop, our system is more robust and will still be able to make money in future.”
- 166ha (415 acres) farm, predominantly grassland with 22ha (55 acres) maize
- 200 Holstein Friesian cross Jersey cross Ayrshire dairy cows
- Seven Red Ruby Devon suckler cows, four bulls
- 200 Texel, North Country mule, Lleyn, and Texel cross Welsh Mountain ewes
- Two Camborough sows
- Commercial farm providing 33,000 hours a year of student teaching