Tim Gibson farms in Bedale, North Yorkshire, milking 200 commercial cows and 85 pedigree Guernseys under contract for ice cream, with four Lely robots. Tim also runs a separate dairy engineering and supplies business from the farm.
Following some careful evaluation of all the available options for ways forward this year in the face of loss-making milk prices, we have come up with a simple plan which is more structured than the one we had last year.
Last year was to carry on as normal, ‘batten down the hatches’ and one comment was to ‘bury your head in the sand’ and hope it gets better. None of these things worked.
For the coming year we plan to buy in few, if any, replacements, so we will have no youngstock to carry as, while times are tough, there is no point in having more mouths to feed or in supplying B litres. This has been forced on us somewhat as there has been no cash surplus to buy any cows with in any case.
Another temporary saving is not to grow maize this year, but to rely more on grass and wholecrop. The likely price of wheat at harvest or soon after, when we sell any we have spare, is about as attractive as B litre prices, so all the winter-sown crops will be used for forage.
The rotation I have used quite well the last two years has been to broadcast and harrow one-year grass leys into wholecrop stubble, then cut the grass once in the autumn and again early in spring before ploughing in and sowing maize. This seems to go alright but this year it won’t be ploughed in. The grass establishes well and will cut another two times then go into winter wheat. The saving from not cultivating, sowing and growing 60 acres of maize will come in handy, and with the extra grass I won’t go overboard with fertiliser this season either.
I am looking forward to our new herd manager joining us in a few weeks. With quite a few enterprises going on now I have found that I need someone focused on the cows and overseeing all the day-today operations on farm. I accept wages are a big overhead and concern, but equally if things are not run correctly losses can soon clock up.
The only investment we are going for this year, which will pay for itself in around 12 months, is to put in a heat detection system which works from ear tags. The robots we use were originally supplied with activity monitors, but now 15 years on they are outdated and unreliable.
On farm this month: Being trialled on farm is a new ear tag (left) which will locate the animal, detect heat and record rumination rates. The Guernseys go out to grass and at last enjoy a day of sunshine.
The new system is standalone and nothing to do with the robot, but links with the Uniform herd management system we use. It is based on an ear tag which is the size of a modern car key fob with a similar battery which is easy to change every three or four years. The main advantage for us
with the system is that it can also pinpoint to within a metre where a cow is within the buildings, like a GPS tracker on every cow. When this is combined with heat detection and rumination monitoring, the tags should make a big difference to our management of the herd.
Even with robots there is still a couple of times a day when someone needs to check for any cows which have not come to the robots to be milked. Now we are working with up to 300 cows it’s a bigger job, so we have been testing the system out and working with the manufacturer, learning about other units in the world where it is used.
A farm in Russia which has nearly 5000 cows is using them and also tags the workers overalls so they can monitor staff efficiency and even pinpoint where the workers are in the farm. Another large farming company in Turkey has several dairy units across a region with unit managers duplicated several times over. They intend to install them on all cows totalling around 20,000, and observe them all from one central office which is staffed round the clock and contacts the site manager to notify them which cows are bulling or need checking for rumination issues. They can then see which member of staff with his tagged overalls is going to the cow in question, and can then ensure at least they have checked or AI’d the cow concerned.
Hopefully we don’t need to go to that extreme, but certainly the amount of information we can get back from each individual cow is impressive. I will be keeping you posted how we get on!