Learning from a dairy herd

5 November 2014

If you read my last blog, then you will all have reflected on the past year, contemplated the lessons learned and decided what to do about them for the next season.

So what will next season bring us?

How many have done next year’s budget, and what yields, prices and costs have you put in?

What’s going to be different this coming year? – One thing we are all going to have to address is greening – the three crop rule and EFAs, as well as changes to GAEC rules, such as hedge boundaries.

Another major difference is that many cereal growers will be, or already have been drilling cereals with current prices below their cost of production.

One thing is fairly certain – if we get another ideal global growing season like the one just past, and without a major weather event to disrupt production, then the market is going to be pretty much where it is now.  Another certainty is that the market will remain volatile – even if it’s volatile at the bottom.

So what to do? Increase yield and reduce cost is the obvious one, but most farmers are working hard at that already. We need to get a bit clever and think how we can do things differently – look for opportunities to change how we do things.

As a farm manager responsible for a dairy herd of 120 high genetic index Holsteins and 450 Jerseys, I was taught very quickly by our nutritionist, Brian Harley, that producing high yields from top end cows requires not only a good dose of science but a degree of myth and magic with the ration formulation and components. One outcome being that if we added whole-crop to the ration, and although the nutrient spec didn’t change much, we could get an extra 0.2kg dry matter, per head per day, into the cows.

At the same time the predecessor of entitlements came in to force – arable aid payments. So we were being paid to produce cereals and pulses, but nothing for grass – do the sums and whole-crop was considerably cheaper per unit of nutrition than grass silage, and on top we could get more dry matter in to the cows.

So where could this route go; what crops were going to benefit the cows the most? We started “trying out” different crop mixes including peas, beans, lupins  and even soya, as well as cereals – small blocks producing about 60 tonnes of silage which we clamped separately on a concrete pad using hesston bales, giving enough to try on separate cow groups.

So what’s the point of this for today’s arable grower? The amount of knowledge gained by these “try outs” was immense – often what didn’t work as much as what did, but just as important, and knowledge that couldn’t be gleaned from scientific research – the basis for the “try outs” came from science, but the learning process was in the trying.

Arable growers are going to have to get clever and think alternately to mitigate against the issues that are suppressing yield and adding to costs. The three crop rule and EFA are an opportunity – you have to do it anyway and are being “paid” to do it. How can you use this opportunity to improve your future sustainability?

Monitor Farms are ideal for trying out new and different things, whether they be alternate methods of crop establishment, rotations, spray nozzles etc.  and the results can then be shared amongst the Community Group. However, there is no substitute to trying it yourself. For example there is a lot of interest in cover crops at the moment, but little research into their benefits. Try sowing some of your own mixes in small areas – use them towards your greening requirements and at the same time learn how to grow them effectively as well as monitoring any impact on your soil, pests, weeds etc. Then share your findings with your nearest Monitor Farm group.

This is just one example – there are many ways to “think outside the box”. The challenge is in sitting down to do it, and then having the courage to actually carry it through to the field. But every so often you will come up with that golden nugget which will make the difference – finding it next year may be crucial.

Gavin Dick - Scotland

Gavin Dick - Scotland

AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Manager (Scotland). Previously a business specialist with SAC, working to broaden farmers’ business management skills.