Undertaking a Nuffield Farming scholarship has enabled Johnny Alvis to make bold decisions and reassess the way he works. Fleur Fox reports.
This week, Farmers Guardian investigates a positive dairying story, in which one Somerset dairy farmer has embraced the challenges of expansion and the opportunity to travel and learn with a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, 24 years into his agricultural career.
As a third-generation dairy farmer, it would have been easy for Johnny Alvis to fit back into his family business and adopt the ‘status-quo’ of daily management of the 240 Holstein Fresian cross herd alongside his brother Peter, who manages the cheese enterprise, Lye Cross Farm Cheesemaking.
But, over the past 10 years, Johnny has grown the dairy enterprise into one which is now milking more than 650 cows, producing five million litres of milk annually.
Johnny says: “While it was exciting to grow and develop the enterprise, I was faced with the reality that with expansion plans in place, I was rapidly going to outgrow the grazing area.
“We had to look at a way of improving productivity of resources, by using them to their full potential. This included utilisation of all our grassland.”
Today, the grass-based 1,619-hectare (4,000-acre) dairy business is run across three sites. The main site milks 650 cows, with the other two sites milking a total of 450 cows, which are predominantly Holstein Friesian crosses.
The two conventional sites are run as separate enterprises within a few miles of each other, linked by 607ha (1,500 acres) of arable land, growing maize, wheat and barley which is cropped and divided depending on units’ individual requirements. The third site is organic and situated 15 miles away.
The main conventional site, Lye Cross, took its first step to improve productivity in 2011, when a decision was made to replace the 40-year-old milking machine which was milking 320 cows over 11 hours.
A 60-point rotary parlour was installed and 500 Holstein Friesians are milked twice a day, producing yields of 7,500 litres a year.
Johnny says: “In terms of numbers of cows we can now milk, the sky is the limit, but without a strategy to protect and nurture our natural resources, we could have been held back.”
The annual Nuffield Farming conference is being held on November 25-27, 2015, at the Europa Hotel, Belfast. Farmers Guardian is the official media partner. For more information, visit www.nuffieldscholar.org.
As a result of the impressive expansion programme, Johnny was faced with a series of challenges he had to resolve.
“This is when I began to consider a Nuffield Scholarship. I was aware with the expansion came the need to make the most of natural resources without exploiting them.”
With this knowledge, last year he embarked on a Nuffield Farming Scholarship to research the topic of ‘Achieving more from less: maximising dairy farming profitability utilising limited resources’.
It was an opportunity to study, travel and take many of his key findings back home and implement them into the day-to-day running of his business.
He says: “My key objective was to gain a better understanding of how UK dairy farmers could achieve more from their existing resources to maximise profitability.”
After 18 months of research and visiting other businesses around the world, he gained a broader understanding of the sector, as well as an insight into issues faced by a number of similar farm businesses. He was also interested to see the importance of individuals implementing proactive best practice steps into their business plans.
Johnny says: “An example of an issue which hit home was repeatedly seeing considerable waste issues. For instance, one American farmer had to travel 16 miles before being allowed to spread slurry, due to a government blanket ban.
“This made me reassess my slurry management because I could not imagine how I would cope with such legislation. It made me step back and value slurry.
“Before my Nuffield, we were regularly making nitrogen applications on conventional ground, however, we now only spread manure after the first spring nitrogen application in March. This reduces my financial outgoings and successfully uses the farm’s natural resources.”
One conclusion from Johnny’s experience is enterprises need to tackle the issue of waste management prior to the situation worsening around the world.
“Every UK business needs to be environmentally proactive and incorporate a system which works for the individual farm and business structure.
“There is an opportunity for UK dairy and arable enterprises to work together and act on a money-saving operation to improve waste management. I believe UK Government intervention is not required.”
His travels did not just benefit him, but also the workmen back home.
He says: “It gave them the opportunity to excel and step up within their roles on-farm.
“It also means I am confident to spend time away from the farm and look at how the business could develop and become more efficient.”
Reflecting on further learnings implemented from his study, Johnny lists some other key changes made since his return.
“Just more than a year ago, I introduced 100 Holstein Jersey crosses into the main herd.
“The farm layout is long and thin, resulting in cows having to walk one-and-a-half miles to some of the furthest grazing.
“This would not be suitable for Friesian Holsteins, but Jersey crosses are more amenable to the walk. They also suit once-a-day milking, which is how we use them in this system, due to the distance.
“Milking Jerseys increases our milk solids without increasing housing requirements, because they are dried off on stubble turnips in December, then calve in March.
“They produce 1kg of fat and 1kg of protein per kg of cow body weight, which is perfect for cost-effectively supplying milk solids for the cheesemaking business.”
The cheese enterprise produces 4,500 tonnes a year and is a prime example of how the farm uses its own resources to add an extra dimension to the business.
Johnny says: “About 20 per cent of milk required by the cheese business is sourced from our own cows and additional milk is bought-in from 30 local farms.
“Being milk producers and buyers is important to us. It gives us an insight into what issues our organic and conventional suppliers deal with on a daily basis.”