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What are the real drivers of sustainability within a dairy farming business?

The second ‘virtual’ farm walk organised by the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland, as part of a European Milk Forum campaign to improve the sustainability of dairy farming, featured Co Down farmer James Brown. Richard Halleron reports.

James Brown is focused on driving efficiency across all aspects of the business
James Brown is focused on driving efficiency across all aspects of the business

The focus of James Brown’s business model is to make the best use of grass. Mr Brown explained that forage utilisation levels for the 81 hectare (200 acre) farm currently stood at an average of 11 tonnes of dry matter (DM) per hectare.

 

Mr Brown said the annual output of the 160-cow milking herd, which was 75 per cent Ayrshire and 25 per cent Norwegian Red, would be 1million litres for 2020.

 

“Output from forage is currently averaging 3,000litres/ha with the cows fed 1.2t of concentrate per lactation”, said Mr Brown.

 

He added that butterfat stood at 4.3 per cent butterfat and protein at 2.3 per cent. Three quarters of the cows calved between January and March with the remainder calving between October and December.

 

Mr Brown said: “Most years we can have cows out in the grazing paddocks during February. I switched from black and whites to Ayrshires almost 30 years ago. They are a smaller, more robust cow with a tremendous ability to graze grass.

 

“Ayrshires are inherently fertile. The cows are also extremely easy to calve.”

 

Grass growth

 

Mr Brown explained he measured grass growth throughout the grazing season.

 

“The cows are put out into unfertilised paddocks during the spring months. Objective number one is to spread thin slurry across all the grazing area using a trailing shoe.

 

“The same approach is taken, where the silage ground is concerned. Total reliance is placed on slurry providing all the phosphate that we need on the farm. As a consequence, the only bought in plant nutrients are nitrogen and potash.

 

“Swards that grow out beyond six inches in height are cut and baled.”

 

Mr Brown said he believed that driving efficiency across every aspect of his farming operation was the best way to improve environmental and economic sustainability within the business.

 

He said: “It starts with the calves. I was involved in the recent youngstock rearing programme, co-ordinated by staff at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute. This work confirmed the absolute importance of the first 100 days in a calf’s life.

 

“In our own case we know that managing cows properly in the run up to calving is important. Feeding the correct balance of dry cow minerals will help ensure that calves are born with lots of vigour and vitality.

 

“Colostrum quality will also be maximised if this approach is taken. It has been our experience that calves will progress well if they have received proper care and attention during the first 100 days of life.”

 

Calving heifers

 

Mr Brown said heifers are calved at 14 months old ‘as a matter of course’, and all herd replacements are weighed regularly right up to the end of their first lactation.

 

He explained: “Calving at 24 months means that we are keeping less stock on the farm. This is helping to reduce the carbon footprint of the business. Regular weighing means that we can identify calves and weanlings that are not meeting their growth targets. These animals can then be fed additional concentrates, as required.”

 

Mr Brown said that soils across the farm were analysed every four years. “We will probably need to spread lime over the coming months.

 

“Precision nutrient management at soil level is very important. The one grey area in this regard is in not knowing the real fertiliser value of the slurry we are spreading.

 

“I feel it is important that farmers should have access to analytical services that will allow them find these values out.”

Efficiency

College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) dairying development adviser Conail Keown also spoke at the webinar. He highlighted the need for milk producers to make improved sustainability a core objective for their businesses.

 

He said: “Sustainability is a very complex issue. It can be addressed from two perspectives: the greater utilisation of new technologies, and the improvement of efficiency levels within all businesses, irrespective of the production model being followed.

 

“The greater use of low emission slurry spreading equipment, such as dribble bars and trailing shoes, is now evident. However, there is also tremendous scope to improve efficiency levels within any dairying business, irrespective of its structure. For example, the use of better genetics and improved grass varieties are as relevant on a farm which is split across a number of locations as they are on one that comprises a single block of land.”

 

He added that be believed the principles associated with sustainability, efficiency and profitability were all inherently linked.

 

“Improving energy efficiency will be a fundamental challenge for all milk producers as they look to the future.

 

“Recent surveys of dairy discussion group members in Northern Ireland are showing that the costs of milk cooling, heating water and operating milking plants can range from £2 to £6 per 1,000l of milk produced.

 

“These figures confirm the role that technologies such as variable speed vacuum pumps and plate coolers can play within the dairy sector moving forward.”

 

Mr Brown highlighted the role played by improved genetics within his own farming operation.

 

He said: “I am currently breeding to improve milk constituents and longevity. Only bulls that are positive for both fat and protein percentage are used on the cows. The herd replacement rate is currently sitting at 21 per cent.

 

“Calving at 24 months is also helping to maintain cows in the milking group for a longer period of time.

 

“There are now 25 cows within the herd that have produced over 50 tonnes of milk. This is a significant milestone for the business, given the breed make-up of the cows.”

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