Peter Winstone, winner of the Dairy Industry Award 2014, is a passionate believer in co-operation and sees a bright future for dairy farming. Jane Brown pays him a visit.
Peter Winstone is someone who truly has the courage of his convictions. A firm believer in co-operation, he sat on the board of Milk Link and Arla for 15 years before standing down this year to give the younger generation a go, and remains on the board of Mole Valley Farmers. Both businesses – and the home farm in Somerset – have been through some tough and exciting times, and Mr Winstone has remained involved throughout, driving them towards a profitable future.
A third generation farmer at Briars Farm, Glastonbury, Mr Winstone attributes his co-operative beliefs to his grandfather, who was a cheese-maker. “By inclination I’d like to make cheese, but I couldn’t be of the scale to survive, so the next best thing is to do it with someone else,” he says.
“I’m absolutely convinced that farmers have to take as much control of the product as far down the line as possible. Most dairy processors are only focussing on margin for shareholders – the actual price of milk isn’t important to them. But it is essential to farmers. We don’t have the scale to process milk ourselves, so being part of Arla - a solid co-operative with strong brands and access to many markets - is very important.”
That will inevitably involve growing the herd further – and with 500 cubicles already in place there is plenty of scope for growth. However, with milk prices at a six-year low Mr Winstone is also focussing on reducing costs. “In a global market you can’t influence the milk price much as an individual so you have to focus on what you’re doing at home. The frustrating thing is that liquid milk is not an importable product so it should command a premium, but retailers buy on price alone,” he says.
“I’m not comfortable with the milk price where it is, but the overriding direction of Arla’s strategy – driving brands and protecting against volatility - is absolutely right.”
Mr Winstone’s focus on cost cutting has led him to try and increase milk from forage, tighten up his calving window and further improve herd health and fertility. “We stopped growing maize last year as it was expensive, bad for the soil, and encouraged badgers and starlings. We’re now rotating wholecrop wheat and grass, and will reseed more frequently to improve grass quality,” he says.
Taking three to four cuts of silage, he aims for maximum palatability, and this year’s first cut averaged 75 D Value, 12mJ/kg ME and 14 per cent protein. He feeds a total mixed ration comprising equal quantities of wholecrop wheat and grass silage with soya hulls, rolled wheat and a protein blend.
The cows calve indoors from mid-August until the end of December, but Mr Winstone is tightening that up to finish by the end of November. The calves are removed immediately and fed colostrum, with beef calves and Friesian bull calves sold at 14-21 days old, providing the herd is TB-free. Replacement heifers are reared on milking machines, and weaned onto grass silage at 63 days.
“We aim to calve heifers at two years, so we feed cake at grass during their first summer to keep them growing – although if we succeed with a tighter calving block we may do away with that,” says Mr Winstone.
He introduces heifers to the main herd when the cows are dried off at grass, then houses them 21 days before calving. “We feed a high straw ration and take the heifers through the parlour once to get them used to it.” Although the main milking herd is housed on sawdust, Mr Winstone houses the dry cows on sand cubicles to minimise mastitis rates.
Fresh calvers are housed separately for five or six days for monitoring, before joining the main herd. “We milk twice a day – sometimes three times a day to maximise seasonality payments. We have a 32-point BouMatic rapid exit parlour and a comprehensive milking regime with pre-spray, wipe, strip, automatic dipping and flushing with post-dip.”
Mr Winstone selects his bull semen based on strength and longevity. “We’re not breeding for yield – we want a robust cow that will utilise forage and graze well. That said, we are starting to select for butterfat and protein as we’re paid on our constituents.” Aberdeen-Angus stock bulls are kept as sweepers, and used on any cows unsuitable for breeding replacements.
“We’ve been Johne’s free for years but we had an outbreak last year, so have tested the whole herd,” says Mr Winstone. “We’re isolating any Johne’s cows for 21 days before calving, but will take them through to their natural end.”
The cows typically graze from mid-March until calving, and are moved onto fresh pasture at least once a day. “I’m experimenting with pre-mowing, which is working very well – and I’m going to start partially grazing the fresh cows in the autumn rather than keeping them housed,” says Mr Winstone. Currently the cows are producing 3,500 litres from forage and he is aiming to increase that to 4,500 litres. “Longer term, we need to improve our tracks, which will help with both lameness and access to pasture.”
The farm team work closely with Delaware vets, who benchmark key performance indicators with other local producers. Mr Winstone uses pedometers to help with heat detection, and is planning to install cameras in the calving pen to help the herdsmen. “We screen for leptospirosis and vaccinate against BVD, and record everything on My Healthy Herd,” he says.
Given the pressure on dairy farmers’ margins and following this summer’s milk protests around the country, milk prices and profitability are sure to be hot topics at the Dairy Show. But Mr Winstone is convinced that the future is bright. “The dairy industry is cyclical and I think we’re probably at the worst part of the cycle right now,” he says. “We are focussing more and more on costs – the industry needs be robust, and if we can survive the downturn we should be profitable in the future.”
He is also keen to promote the industry to new entrants and younger farmers. “We need to be wary of talking the industry down too much. Yes, we need to get a message across to the government and retailers, but frankly there are many dairy businesses that have done well over the years.”
Farmers should also try and get involved in the supply chain, at least to get an understanding of how it operates, he adds. “You need to understand what influences your business – you might not be able to change it but it will affect your strategic decisions.”
Presented at the Dairy Industry Dinner on the eve of the Dairy Show, the award recognises people who have made an outstanding contribution to the industry. “It was a real honour to win,” says Mr Winstone. “It was a great surprise, but it is so nice to have an award that recognises people who are trying to make a difference in the industry.”