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Cowmen Comment: Scott Kirby on getting the public behind farming

Scott Kirby is farm manager at Harper Adams University and a Nuffield Scholar.

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In this month's Cowmen Comments Scott Kirby talks retailers raising their game #dairyfarmer

Despite only being six weeks from Christmas as I write, there are still big acreages of maize standing in Shropshire as the lack of any real sunshine has left crops crawling towards maturity. A few brave souls did go early into immature crops either through necessity to refill pits or impatience, but they risked lower starch levels and poorer ensiling characteristics, and I know of a couple now having to collect effluent from their pits. While AD operators seem content that these immature crops can just be put into the AD, for a dairy farm this would represent a loss of valuable nutrients.


We finished our own maize crop on November 2, and having our own harvesting capability certainly paid dividends this year, allowing us to target individual fields as they finally reached maturity.


On average our fields were cut at 34.13% dry matter. Widespread showers required strategic cutting to ensure that the wheat drill was closely behind the forager. Maize has averaged 15.70 tonnes of dry matter, a drop of just 0.8t on last year’s record harvest, making it our second best recorded harvest. Unfortunately, the early evidence is quality has not matched that of last year.


The harvest lab has typically been recording starch levels around 33%, while some of last year’s maize reached as high as 38.7% starch and 11.3 ME. Like other Tesco producers we have been eagerly awaiting the result of the review of the Tesco Sustainable Dairy Group (TSDG). The group of about 600 farms was established in 2007 and it became the first group of producers to supply a major retailer using a cost of production model.


Back in 2007 the supermarkets motives were perhaps more about securing supply rather than altruism. The cost of production model has meant that we have not always seen the highest prices on offer but neither have we suffered the worst of the price cuts that are currently decimating parts of our industry. It proposes producers will be scored on key metrics such as welfare, animal health and environmental management.


The top 5% scoring farms will be rewarded with an additional volume of 100,000 litres while the bottom 5% will be encouraged to improve and if they fail to do so their contracts will be terminated. Simplistically it means farms which have used the security of their Tesco contract and price to invest in the sustainability of their cows and farms will be rewarded, while those with more short-term perspectives, who have perhaps taken the premium out of the farm, may find they are not the sort of farm the retailer wants to engage with. It seems a fairly positive move provided the targets are appropriate ones which encourage greater sustainability and professionalism in our sector.


We need the public to recognise this kind of support and ask why other retailers are not raising their game. As we head for winter and concentrate usage increases, it is worth checking copper supplementation levels. Last winter we lost two heifers inexplicably and, at postmortem, copper toxicity was diagnosed. The animals had been reared indoors on a straw and concentrate ration, and, as there were no other obvious sources of copper, our attention focused on the ration. The 20% heifer-rearing cake was designed for high genetic merit animals and to complement straw and or restricted silage. When an independent nutritionist checked it, he discovered that it was formulated with 70mg/kg DM of copper.


The maximum permitted level of copper in a total cattle ration is 35mg Cu/kg DM and UK industry guidance actually limits this to 20mg Cu/kg DM. As a complement to straw we were typically feeding 4kg of the concentrate with straw which was equating to 43mg Cu/kg DM in the total ration. There is no treatment for copper toxicity other than to take away the copper supplementation and allow levels to fall naturally in the animals. Symptoms are not distinctive and unless a post-mortem is carried out, deaths can be attributed to more common causes. Check the labels on your youngstock compound and if copper is included higher than 35mg/kg DM, take note, and ask your compounder why.


Farm facts

  • FARM SIZE: 1359 acres (550ha)
  • HERD SIZE: 400 cows
  • ROLLING MILK YIELD: 9750 litres/cow
  • TARGET YIELD: 10,000 litres/cow
  • MILK BUYER: Tesco (Wisemans)
  • SOIL TYPE: Sand, clay and peat
  • RAINFALL: 800mm/year.
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