My view from both sides of the fence!

As many of you may know, as well as my job here at CMC I also have a family run, robotic, dairy farm in Devon. This means I see both sides of the fence.

I knew I wanted to be a farmer from a very young age and couldn’t wait to leave school to work on a large local dairy farm. I learnt a great deal and it made me even more determined to build my own farming business. In 1995 after applying for many council farms, myself, and my wife Tracey, were successful with a 15 year tenancy for a 112 acre dairy farm in Tavistock. After 14 years, and no chance extending our tenancy, we made the very hard decision to sell our 150 cows which enabled us to buy a small dairy farm in Highampton. Here we contract reared dairy replacements and I started my Sales Rep career.

In 2013 we decided to start milking cows again, this time with a Lely robot! In November 2013 everything came together and we started our dairy farming business again with 60 imported German heifers. I was able to also carry on my role as a Sales Rep.

Our system is a very simple. We feed all round bale haylage down a straight feed barrier alongside a 15-17% dairy cake fed through the robot. Our cows lie in deep sand bed cubicles and are scraped out twice a day with a tractor. Ours is a flying herd and cows are served to British Blue or Angus by AI.

Our farm is family run, by myself, my wife, my two daughters and young son- they each have their own roles in the business.

Dealing with Milk Price Drop

Like most of you, we have taken a 10p a litre milk price drop in the last 12 months. It is more important than ever to know your production costs then evaluate and prioritise these.

Forget my salesman’s hat – cutting feed rate is not always the road to go down. For example, I felt our rate was too high at 0.4 and where my first instincts were to reduce the amount fed, I actually gave every cow 0.5kg extra, which the cows responded to by approx. 2L/cow/day. This then reduced my feed rate to 0.39 and made more money through the extra milk produced. It also told me that I was asking too much from my haylage. Had I done the opposite I’m sure my yield would have decreased and my feed rate stayed the same.

I am wary of just quoting feed rates – remember it’s an average figure and averages can be dangerous. If you put one foot in the fire and the other in the freezer, both get burnt, but the average is okay! Even if your feed rate is good there are always cows being over and under fed. More often than not, the staler cows are being overfed and the freshly calved under fed. There is money to be saved by looking at this on a weekly basis. On the farm we are always tinkering with the feed program on the robot, to make every kilo count.

Another big cost on a robot farm is electricity, which is now costing me 0.9p/litre of milk produced, which is about as low as I can get it down to. Checking water heaters for temperatures and length of time they are on for can save a lot. Adjusting the bulk milk tank temperature that it cools down to can be a huge saving. Milk can be collected if it’s under 5degs, so there is no point in using a lot of power to take it lower.
Make sure to make the most out of your milk contract, understand what your buyer wants. No point chasing milk protein or butterfat if you don’t get paid for it. On the flip side, one way of increasing your milk cheque if the contract pays for it, is maximise on your quality even if you reduce litres sold a little. If on seasonality or A and B make sure you produce your milk at the best times in the year.
Silage costs. I do all round bales and I know what a bale costs to make. I buy in a lot of bales each year because of my small acreage, this is better for me than buying or renting land and having all the cost of inputs and labour. At least with bales you only pay for what you get and can harvest fields when they are ready.

Sand beds are not the cheapest to maintain at £340/month for 72 cubicles, but are the best for cow comfort although the worst on machinery. I justify using sand by the reduction in mastitis, lameness and cows doing the splits. I would rather wear out machinery than my cows. This is one thing I will not cut costs on.

Our breeding policy is to buy in replacements and put all cows to beef bulls, even a 15000 litre one. We haven’t got the land, buildings or interest in rearing replacements. We sell our calves at about 2 to 6 weeks old which is good money at the moment and probably the most profit any one will get from that animal in its life.

When the milk price is down my replacements get cheaper even though rearing costs haven’t altered much. I can buy the cows I like rather than be stuck with some I rear and don’t like.
I question and cost out everything we do on this farm. I encourage people to challenge all I do. It’s important who we ask, the worst person you can take advice from is the one that will agree with everything you say so as not to upset you.

Another thing we are doing now is buying some machinery with my neighbour farmer on a 50/50 basis on costs. This is allowing us to have better and more efficient machinery which we could not justify on our own.

John Cann
T 07971 123984