Henry Gent farms 120ha (300 acres) and the same area again on short-term agreements, all grazing, near Exeter. All land is organic and he sells milk from his 300 cows to the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative. Married, with grown up children, he has a team of five people looking after the dairy herd and followers and also runs chickens which go to a local abattoir.
We have just had a dry month, with less than 3mm recorded in my rain gauge in the last four weeks until a late splurge of 35mm in one weekend. Bizarrely, almost whimsically, we cut 32 hectares (80 acres) of pasture on April 19, our earliest ever cutting date. Why did I do it? Nothing concentrates the mind of a dairy farmer as much as looking at cake prices, as I was at the time. We have bought ahead for the coming summer and we will be paying about £40/tonne more than the previous winter period.
We do not know what prices will be beyond autumn and there is no futures market for organics. With no further increases, 18 per cent cake will be about £385/t next winter. Organic high protein crops are in short supply around the world and prices have gone up. Tellingly, even the USA is a large importer of organic grain.
The global market in organic concentrates is supplied by exports from China and ex-Soviet bloc countries. In Europe, testing regimes are tightening and this situation is fraught with risk. All this is relevant to my decision to cut early. We must try to make quality forage for winter so we can produce milk using as little concentrates as possible. We must aim to minimise our demand for high protein crops.
In Britain we can grow organic cereals, at a price, and feed them to cows either clamped, baled, crimped or dry. But our climate is not ideal for the high protein crops which are available. Beans and peas are rather susceptible to disease and weeds respectively. Young grass should be higher in protein than more mature stuff and at least we did not have to worry about leaving an appropriate interval following nitrogen application.
The most recent application was 18 years ago. This month sees the retirement from our cooperative of Peter Savidge, the man who guided us and encouraged us through our most exciting developments. Peter is widely respected in OMSCo and his mild manner obscures his courage and his ability to get farmers moving, which is always a challenge.