Producing healthy milk with no concentrates
Tenant farmer Mat Boley probably runs the lowest yielding commercial dairy herd in the country, milking once-a-day and feeding no cake, yet he still makes a profit.
Twenty years ago, Batch End Farm was home to 150 Holstein Friesian cows, calving all year round and grazed for six months, and housed the rest of the year.
But after spending some time in New Zealand, Mat realised that seasonal production – producing milk in tune with the grass-growing season, could take some of the drudgery out of dairy farming.
“We seemed to be chasing our tails constantly and it was really miserable milking twice-a-day in January and February,” says Mat.
“I was lucky my father was open-minded and allowed me to take the business in the opposite direction to the rest of the industry.”
Now, 350 crossbred cows and youngstock graze 223ha (550 acres) of organic perennial ryegrass and white clover pastures. They calve in a tight spring block, starting on March 1, finishing eight weeks later.
OAD milking and no cake
But what makes this farm very different from most other New Zealand-style units is the fact the cows are milked only once a day (OAD) and are not fed any grains or cereals ever.
“Yes the yields are low,” admits Mat. “But then my costs of production are also low. With no cake to feed, exceptional fertility – 95% of the cows calve in the first six weeks, and healthy cattle, I manage to keep my costs contained.”
NB these do not include fixed costs such as rent and finance charges
Table 1: Variable costs (p/litre)
The cows produce an average of 280kg milk solids a year, at 5% fat and 4% protein. One million litres a year is sold to Alvis Brothers at Bristol to be made into vintage cheddar cheese, and Mat receives a fair organic price for it.
“A conventional farmer could probably treble the amount of milk produced from this acreage, but at a much greater cost,” says Mat. “It would also take much more time. I have a young family and can spend time with them and do other things I enjoy like micro-lighting.”
The system is set up for one man to manage for eight months of the year, with seasonal help for calving and serving from March to June.
The cows have been bred over the past 20 years, using New Zealand Jersey and Friesian genetics, to produce a small, efficient cow that is willing to graze.
They are dried off in the middle of December and most go indoors on straw beds until calving, eating only hay and silage. One hundred are out-wintered on suitable ground. After they have calved they go out to graze.
The first 80 female calves born are put into two groups and go outside and fed whole milk from the colostrum cows, through a 50-teat machine once a day.
They are given milk for 14 weeks, but nothing else apart from the grass. When they are three weeks old, the vet comes to sedate them so Mat can disbud them all while they are unconscious.
Bull calves used to be destroyed at birth, but Mat always felt uncomfortable about this. This year he has found a local farmer who is willing to take them for free and feed them, taking them onto large stores.
Calving and serving
Once calving is over, the service period starts. Mat buys eight young crossbred bulls a year from fellow OAD milker Jonny Rider, to serve the 80 heifers from the end of May. The bulls then have ten months off and become sweeper bulls for the cows the following year. They are then sold, as they are starting to get too wild to live outside at pasture.
This year the cows were served by New Zealand AI technicians with Jersey semen for 16 days, and then ten days with NZ Friesian semen.
|Condition score at calving||3|
|Calving start date||1 March|
|Calving spread||8 Weeks|
|50% herd calved||13 Days|
|% Calved in first six weeks||95|
|Submission rate at four weeks||99|
Table 2: Calving and fertility data
“Calving ease is really important,” comments Mat. “I assisted one cow out of 350 this year – a set of twins that needed untangling. It was a two-minute job.”
Vet and medicine costs are very low at 0.7p/litre. The cows are not vaccinated for any disease and despite four active badger sets on the farm there has never been a case of TB.
“Because we are not pushing the cows to give milk, they are less stressed,” explains Mat. “This means they have more energy to put into their immune system and they stay healthy – with just minerals added to their water.
“They are in negative energy balance after calving for just two weeks – in twice a day milking herds this can last for as long as six weeks.
“We have to be careful not to let the dry cows get too fat. One year we ran out of silage and bought organic forage in that was better quality than we have ever made. They put on so much weight leading to metabolic problems at calving”.
The cows rotationally graze the paddocks every 30 days in spring. Mat measures the grass with a platemeter every ten days and lets the cows in when there is 2800kg dry matter (DM)/ha, and takes them out when they have eaten it down to 1600kg DM/ha. The last round takes place in November.
Out of nine tonnes of DM grass grown, the cows eat eight tonnes of DM – which is 88% utilisation. When the grass is growing too quickly to graze, silage is cut and baled from it.
The fields are fertilised with composted farmyard manure from the winter housing – which is laid out in a field and turned three times in three weeks to produce fine compost.
“This system suits us and supplies enough cash to service all our debts and rents,” says Mat.
“Essentially I want 280kg milk solids from nine month lactations with no feed other than pasture, silage and hay. We can only do this by having the right grass and the right cows – and after 20 years we feel we are on the right track.”
Pasture for Life Milk
Mat Boley is one of six UK dairy farmers taking part in a pilot exercise looking at the feasibility of producing and selling Pasture for Life Milk.
The Pasture-fed Livestock Association (PFLA) promotes the unique quality of meat and milk derived just from pasture, together with the wider environmental, health and animal welfare benefits that pastured livestock systems bring.
“We started out certifying 100% pasture-fed beef and sheep enterprises, but have picked up a real interest from consumers who are asking for 100% grass-fed milk too,” said PFLA chairman John Meadley at a recent farm walk at Mat Boley’s farm.
“We now have secured funding to look at this more deeply, to draw up standards for milk and investigate the options for selling Pasture for Life milk – be it from small micro-dairies with one or two cows, or larger scale dairy farms with hundreds of cows.”
This article first appeared in British Dairying, July 2016