Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A Photographic Update

So I've finally sat down and decide to write a blog post.

Instead of boring you with excuses I'll try and bring you all up to date with the year with some pictures!

 As you know the year started with a horrible cold spring.
Here we are vaccinating R2s in the sleet!

 Because our old sheds couldn't cope with the rainfall, we turfed the calves out early. They had a tough start but are now thriving.

Not the most exciting photo, but you can see the damage done to our paddocks in the spring.

As soon as conditions improved we set about repairing the damage. Trashed paddocks had new grass oversown and our tracks were earmarked for resurfacing. We took the opportunity to widen the track above which leads to our furthest paddocks.

 Once May arrived the heat and warmth really kicked in. May-September we only recorded two weeks growing less than 70kgDM/Ha. To counter this and avoid cutting mountains of silage we set about premowing. Every paddock had to be mowed twice to stop the grass heading!

Here are the bull teams getting ready for action! We cut the AI period to 4 weeks this year. We recorded 90% cycling in the first 3 weeks. Scanning results have been excellent: 90% in calf in 6 weeks with only 5% empty after 12 weeks.

We were very fortunate to source second hand astrotruf to cover our tracks. First we graded them out by patching and rolling any holes, then unrolled astroturf to create a very soft cow friendly sruface. Check out the video here: https://goo.gl/photos/VHWM1LZ7EmXswTh39

 View of the herd ready to be milked. Typically we'd get 3 months unsupplemented production. This year it will be 4.5.

 Heading into the autumn covers rose without much effort. Clover had been particularly prominent in our swards which is great for milk production.

 Just like the cows, our calves have been unsupplemented since May and look very content on grass.

A final shot of us rolling out astroturf. A lot of the work we have carried out this year has really been dictated to us by the weather!

I hope this gives you an idea of what we've been up to. Normal, more detailed blog posts will be coming soon.
Until then, there should be plenty of grass on UK farms so there's no excuse to not keep grazing!

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Focussing On The Important Things

A fine view of the Clwydian Range from the runoff block

Well, here we are in April, and spring still hasn't arrived. Growth has been slow, averaging 15-30kgDM/Ha/Day. Looking back at last year, during the same period we recorded 55kg growth. This is a huge difference on a highly stocked farm such as ours. Instead of pregrazing at 2600+, we're going into 2100. Cows are on a 30 day round with 4.5kg concentrates and 4-5kgDM of silage. The same period last year there was no silage in the diet and we had started taking the concentrates out too. Fortunately milk yield is fairly steady at 2-2.2kgMS a day, but with the low energy density of the silage, milk proteins are low at 3.3%.

On the calving front we've sold a lot of late calvers and some empties we fattened overwinter. We're still calving 1-2 a day, with 10 needed to make a nice herd of 400 cows. We did consider milking more and stocking over 4 cows/Ha, but given the slow spring and low payout, instead we're happy to just consolidate the herd with earlier calvers.

Cows are spending up to 6 hours a day stood on the feedpad

But hey, if I wanted to moan about milk price and weather I'd spend a day at the local market!
Instead I want to talk about decision making in farming systems.

For me there is always a tension in farming between doing what we believe will generate a return, and doing what we want to do, to preserve out own enjoyment and sanity! This first practise I will call "margin chasing" and the second I will call "lifestyle". To make this clearer I'll list and categorise some farming choices and practises which I've had to make decisions around:

Margin Chasing
Rearing bull calves
Using beef bulls
Winter milking
Split autumn and spring calving
Milk recording
In house contracting work
Using less labour
More vaccination
High levels of reseeding and cropping
Rearing and selling surplus heifers
Long AI period
High breeding intervention
Complex cow diets
Animal focussed advise

Once a day milking
A large milking parlour
More labour
Contracting out all tractor work
Taking more holidays
More family time
Lax record keeping
No vaccination
No reseeding
No intervention

Be aware that this list relates only to myself and my own farm! I am NOT arguing that OAD milking has no margin or that high reseeding levels do! These are ideas I've considered and how I have chosen to categorise them in my on mind.

The key is always to strike a balance on your own farm. You could draw up and categorise a similar list for different farmers and you could guarantee that no two would be the same. Unfortunately in times of low prices farmers are forced or advised further down the Margin Chasing route putting at risk their own personal health. Before we take any decision or embark on a change of practise we have to ask what is driving that decision? Will the outcomes be positive for both business profitability and our own enjoyment and health?

This tension between profit and lifestyle is a topic I'd like to return to in the future.
But until then let's look forward to some improved weather and for a lot of us, finishing calving!

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Wet Wet Wet

Just a quick post. It's been a wet February and it looks to be a cold AND wet March. Every break is back fenced with cows grazing 3-4 hours during the day then stood on silage and grazed on a smaller area at night. The idea being, sending them out full, to the night break, encourages less time standing and trampling, and more time lying down. 

Hardcore grazing (don't worry we brought them back in after a couple of hours!)

Despite all this calving is coming to an end. 75% of the herd have calved with only one vet callout to a backwards breach calf. I expect another 10% in the next fortnight, with the final 15% strung out until the end of April. If we hit target numbers for the season before then, there may be scope to sell all the April calvers and have a break before service starts. It's nice to have dreams!

Staff are in good spirits with all our replacement heifer calves now on once a day feeding. Any calf born from now onwards will be sold at 10 days old.
R2s happy on baleage and grass

As you can see above, this year our R2s are wintered on grass and bales. We've seen our friends do this for years and always wanted to give it a go. It turns out to be the perfect year to start, as the ground has been so wet that without the bales, they would have struggled to utilise the heavy deferred grass covers.

I hope you're all coping with the weather and still managing to keep grazing!

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Things come full circle

Just a quick post to mark the start of grazing 2016. 

Cows back fenced onto the break.

Cows have been out day and night since 27th Jan. The weather has been very mixed. One minute bright and dry, the next torrential rain and 20mph+ winds. Teat condition had been a concern so I've doubled the amount applied by the auto teat sprayers. Most breaks require a back fence to avoid treading the same area twice.

The good news is that our heifer synchrony has worked well. 68% of those submitted have calved to the single service. What's pleasing to see is that our second calvers are now "second to calve" as they were front loaded into our block last year and were the first submitted when mating started. Hopefully they can stay in this "virtuous circle" this year!

Here are some farm facts as of today 11/2/16:

Avg cover: 2500
Planned start of calving: 7/2 (1/2 Heifers)
Percentage calved: 36%

And here are the final KPIs from last year:

Grass grown TDM: 15
Kg MS/Cow: 481
Kg MS/Ha: 1588
Kg Conc/Cow: 980
Avg Cows/Ha: 3.6
MT rate@12 weeks: 7%
InCalf@6 weeks AI: 83%

All in all a good year for us and a great grass growing year.
Until next time, keep grazing!

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Lessons from New Zealand

Season's greetings to everyone reading this. I hope 2015 was a good year for you and that 2016 proves a prosperous one.

I haven't blogged for a while now, I've been enjoying time with my family and thought it best to wait until I felt a bit more "inspired" by a particular topic. So without further digression here's a blog all about my recent trip to New Zealand.

If you'd rather not read the "travelogue" then just skip to the bullet points!

It seems like a long time since I first read about NZ and grass based dairying. When I came home from university, my wife was living and working away whilst qualifying as a teacher, this left me with a lot of time to learn about the farming business my parents were then running. A typical evening would consists of finishing milking, showering, eating, then simply sitting and reading articles, journals and magazines on kiwi dairying. It fascinated me that there could be such a well researched and clearly defined system for operating a dairy farm, and yet its practices were adopted by only a minority of UK farmers. I knew one day I would have to visit NZ and see for myself.

Last November I set off for three weeks on the Positive Farmers NZ tour. This is a biennial tour run by Mike Murphy. The program looked appealing, starting in the north and working our way down to the south of NZ, taking in all the major dairying regions.

It was a well organised tour, with some important and very clear messages imparted to the group. In fact a lot of the value of the trip was gained in the interaction of the group on the bus with Mike orchestrating and guiding debate. These moments, where we were each encouraged to give our own take and engage in debate with each other, will stand as some of the most enjoyable and memorable of the tour. Topics from goal setting to our own individual farm issues were opened up to the group with really interesting discussion.

I'll confess straight away that the first week was a shock to the system. Now, as you may have guessed, I love cows and farming, but I do endeavour to have "other interests" and not become a "farming bore" as I'm regularly accused! So the idea of two farm visits a day, with not much respite in between, wore thin quicker than I had hoped. Not to mention it took me a good four days just to recover from the jet lag!

One problem for me, was just how similar the farms we were taken to were. They were largely System 1 or 2 farms with little to no imported supplement fed and cows wintered on deferred grazing. This is the ultimate simple system with minimal infrastructure. So apart from the cows and grass there really wasn't much to see. It was explained that this in itself was a problem for kiwi farmers. It is simply too easy to be a dairy farmer in NZ. Climate, banks, genetics, land availability; all their ducks line up neatly in a row for them. Boredom was a big fear for them, and is partly responsible for the intensification of systems they have experienced in the last 10 years.

Whilst it was clear that these "simple system" farmers were fantastic businessmen who, in staying true to their system and not following the crowd, had reaped huge financial reward, some of what I encountered was simply "not cool".

A typical narrative was one of a young sharemilker starting out with a small herd and really valuing each one. But as their numbers expanded and they moved to multi-unit management, cows just became numbers. They became so fixated by their "nil-supplement" system that when a drought occurred, or a spring deficit the only options they had were to cull hard, "chop their heads off", or "mine body condition", another term for this was "controlled starvation". A lot was made of the resilience of their cows to lose condition and still get in calf. Cows which over conditioned themselves were callously referred to as "fat bitches". To me this goes against everything I believe about the care of cows. I have always been taught that it is a privilege to rear and milk livestock and that we have a duty of care towards every animal. This isn't to say that every farmer on this system felt the same, but attitude towards cows with certain individuals was nothing short of disturbing.

Deforestation for dairying

Another aspect which surprised me was the sheer prevalence of dairying in NZ. We drove up to the North Island town of Taupo. Along the way we saw miles and miles of deforestation. Then as the trees were cleared the ground was being cultivated and sown to ryegrass for dairying. Until recently any woodland which was removed had to be replanted somewhere else. A change in this law now means that NZ's forestry is declining at an alarming rate. This seems particularly perverse when you consider that tourism is such a vital part of NZ's economy. Marketed and traded heavily on their unique natural beauty, bit by bit this is being eroded to plant more European ryegrass species, to milk more cows.

Now I don't want to end on a negative. The above stands as my own thoughts and reaction to a very unique trip, and should by no means be taken as an indictment of the entire country or dairy industry. In fact none of the farms we visited could be described as representing the average in any way. A lot of the language I have quoted, was in all likelihood an exaggeration on behalf of a few individuals and not, if pressed, their true feelings.

I did take home a lot from the trip, as I've tried to summarise below. I met some really great people, especially our host family in Taranki, and saw some absolutely jaw dropping scenery and natural beauty. There's no doubt I'll return to NZ one day with my family in tow and hopefully explore more of its unique landscapes.

Key Take Home Messages:
  • Simple systems provide more free time to asses opportunities and grow.
  • Simple systems are, by their very nature, more repeatable in both establishment and outcomes.
  • Having clearly defined goals and values allow you to make smarter decisions. If you are in business with someone else it is important that these goals are delineated from the outset and aligned.
  • "Free Time" is as equally valid a goal as "Free Cash", though the two may not be mutually exclusive.
  • Debt levels should be set according to the capabilities of the operator and their personal approach to risk. "Back yourself" was a common phrase. If you run a cash rich business, you can service debt, if you can service debt you can grow your business.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Autumnal Grazing

Cows off to graze on a brisk morning.

Today's post will be about autumn grazing management.

Things are going well at Tre Abbot. Autumn has been very kind so far. From a poor start, with a cold and miserable August, it has soon turned out to be a fantastic period for grass and cows. Where we had budgeted growth in the 40s, instead we've had almost a fortnight growing at 60+kgDM/Ha/Day. Along with this the weather has stayed dry, allowing for very clean residuals.

Just to emphasise the point, and to prove I don't just take pictures of cows and grass, here's my 6 months old in the garden.

Mari enjoying the warm weather!

So at this time of year the grazing is simplified using an autumn rotation planner. Basically in this, our final round, we aim to graze 60% of the farm in October and 40% in November. Knowing the farm has little to no winter growth, and that we have a very high spring demand, we will aim to finish grazing with a cover of 2200kgDM/Ha. Grazing management has become offering the cows the same allocation every day, and supplementing the difference. Along with the rotation planner we use an autumn budget so we know how much grass should be on the farm each week until drying off.

Autumn Budget

As you can see, despite a poor start, growth has been exceptional and leaves us just ahead of budget going into this week. Both the autumn rotation planner and the budget are very simple tools that we have used for over ten years now. Not trying to reinvent the wheel, and sticking to tried and tested grazing management has led to very consistent and replicable results.

R1s happy on the break.

On a personal note, in the past couple of months I've taken on work as a grazing consultant. So far I've really enjoyed the experience working with some interesting and varied clients. Being put on the spot and challenged to provide advice has really helped firm my own values around resilient grass based systems and the positive effects grazing can have for man and beast alike! My current plans are to keep it to two visits a week.

Until next time, keep grazing!

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Results Day: Scanning 2015

Just a quick blog post today to update you all on what's been happening on farm.

At this time of year we look to build farm cover by extending the grazing round. We build up a bank of grass to keep us grazing until drying off at the end of November. Unfortunately, temperatures have been below average, as has rainfall. This has meant feeding silage a month earlier than planned. But in the last fortnight we finally had significant rain, and covers are now back on target.

Getting ready to scan some heifers!

The other news this month are our scanning results. This year, cows were mated for 12 weeks, 6 weeks of AI and 6 weeks of stock bulls. Heifers all had a single fixed timed AI then ran with Jersey bulls for 12 weeks.

As our favourite vet, "Kiwi" Kate Burnby, was only in the area for a few days, we decided to bite the bullet and scan all 370 cows and 140 heifers in one day. We started in the morning scanning on the vet platform as the cows are milked on the rotary parlour. Kate is so fast at this that the whole process barely added half an hour to our milking time!

The great news was that for the third season in a row only 7% of our cows were empty. With 83% in calf to the 6 week AI.

After some toast and a mug of tea, we set off to the runoff block to scan the R2s. We've never scanned R2s before, but given our surplus of stock we thought it would at least give us the option to sell some. Despite my reservations that these were a smaller group of heifers than the year before, we only found 5% empty (7 heifers), with 84% in the first 6 weeks. We won't know how well they have held to the AI, but Kate seemed confident that a lot of them would be early calving.

We're obviously really pleased with all the results and are now faced with many options for next season. Here are just a few:
1. Keep everything and milk more cows
2. Sell surplus heifers
3. Sell surplus cows
4. Clean out herd with more voluntary culling

Whilst I'm considering all of these, I'd rather not winter any stock I don't intend to keep and milk myself next season. But at the end of the day it's great to have a choice.

Before I sign off  just a quick thanks  to Clawdd Offa for letting us borrow Sue for the day! She was a massive help and it's fair to say we couldn't have managed without her. And of course thanks to Kate for a professional and efficient scanning.

Until next time,
Keep grazing!