Profitable long-term plan outlined at Dairylink farm walk

14th April 2016

Profitable long-term plan outlined at Dairylink farm walk

The second of the Dairylink farm walks took place on the Brown family farm not far from Belfast, Co Down.

Bill Brown had a super milk-producing herd, heading for 10,000 litres per cow, consuming well over three tonnes of meal per animal.

In late 2014, he joined the Dairylink project and, for the first time, had to justify a vision for his dairy business and stack up the farm financial figures.

The tasks he had to complete in year one of the project (2015) were simple: tasks that every farmer – irrespective of system, stage of development, etc – needs to complete. Bill said: "When you are forced to complete simple cash-in and cash-out recording very quickly you begin to question costs involved in the business."

The overall plan for year one was to build a business plan for the dairy farm. In order to do this, you need key metrics. These include working out land area farmed: actual acres that are growing feed. The farm needs to be mapped and, from that, you need to complete a plan for roadways, fencing, water, and so on. You also need accurate stocking rate figures to make proper decisions.

Bill Brown has a 60-hectare milking platform. Yes, some of it floods. Yes, some has very poor access. Yes, it's awkward to walk cows to some of it, but he still has it.

If Bill stayed on the journey to a 10,000-litre cow consuming well over three tonnes of meal per animal, he might as well have almost forgotten about grazing altogether.

Calving cycle

Calving has spread to eight and nine months, instead of a desired four or five months. In 2015, calving started in August, and on Tuesday this week Bill still had three cows to calve. Calving for nine months of 12 takes its toll on labour, management, herd health and, above all else, the financials.

However, Bill has a plan to bring calving back to ideally four months (16 weeks). This will take some hard decisions. He will need to sell some super producing cows, stop breeding according to plan, use genetics high for fertility rather than volume, and increase replacement rate to improve the pace of transition to compact calving.

Costs have to be cut or – given the milk price – the bottom line is Bill won’t have money to pay for drawings, tax or loan repayments. Bill said: "Money, or the lack of it, very quickly makes you sit up straight and allow changes to your system."

The short-term plan on this farm is to reduce costs by £50,000 over three years. This will be a combination of targeting purchased feed to the right cows, spending more on lime and potash to grow more feed, as well as reducing feed to growing heifers.

Given the time of calving, the spread-out calving pattern and the priority of making silage rather than grazing, up to now heifers were indoors for long periods. Dairylink adviser Conail Keown and Bill worked out that the heifers were consuming over one tonne of meal per head. The plan is to get more grass into these heifers, rather than purchased feed.

Every paddock has been soil sampled. Instead of taking a sample for every 30 acres the plan is to build a soil fertility plan for every field to optimise soil fertility.

Yes, this involves spending money on potash and lime. However, it's money well spent, as it improves the overall utilisation of all other nitrogen, phosphorus and slurry spread. Bill said: "I've 100 tonnes of lime ordered, and I'm waiting for a decent spell of weather to get it spread on paddocks identified under 5.9pH."

The other big area for improvement on this farm is herd health. Given the high-producing nature of the herd and the indoor production system, where over 60% of milk is produced indoors, it’s hard on animals, and Bill has a high herd health expense to match.

Bill has a good share of lameness in the herd, and some old cows that previously produced exceptional yields are now very poor on their feet and mostly lying on straw beds. This type of individual cow attention is labour-intensive and hard work.

Bottom line

Bottom line conclusions from this farm walk were that building a vision for a business takes measurement and accurate figures. Once you get the right facts down on paper, you can decide to move in one direction or the other.

Over the last year, Bill Brown has completed the simple but effective tasks: monthly cash-flow, farm mapping, plan for investment in high-return areas, early grazing to reduce costs, and a long-term plan that shows his business is making more money.

If every farmer could do this, the Northern Ireland dairy industry would have a much brighter future.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the Irish Farmers Journal. Please click on the below Irish Farmers Journal logo to be brought to additional dairy articles

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