Radical changes to herd management have delivered positive results for Richard Henderson.
Taking on responsibility of the farm accounts, Richard Henderson from The Gill, near Carlisle, Cumbria, had his eyes opened on the true cost of milk production to his business which led to a complete transformation.
Mr Henderson says: “On paper, herd performance was good. We were producing 9,000 litres per cow, with a 385-day calving interval and the herd housed all year.
“We were growing multiple crops, but had a high level of bought-in feeds.
“However, once I went through the figures in detail, a whole new picture emerged.
“The wet year of 2012 was a turning point, and I felt the work and stress involved in our system was not sustainable.
“Although we were making profit, margins were low, feed costs were high and a drop in milk price would have had a serious impact on the business. It was disheartening to invest so much time and effort into a system that was so delicate.”
He decided on a new approach, which would be much less reliant on bought-in feeds.
“I wanted a system that pulled back the feed costs without impeding on fertility and health,” he says.
“Too much emphasis had always been put on milk yield, which now seems a very ineffective tactic, as without a focus on costs of production you may still be losing money.
“What was apparent to me was the need to manage my land better and that meant training myself and the cows in grassland utilisation.
“The potential for grass to produce profitable milk is high, especially in Cumbria. Yet, as dairy farmers, we still have a lot to learn.
“I joined discussion groups, researched on the internet and used industry advice to set about a whole new farm approach of a milk from grass system, with a move towards spring block calving and a minimum margin of 10ppl.”
Mr Henderson says he was advised against making the changes, but he had complete belief this was the best way forward when looking at the business in the long-term.
“The discussion groups in particular were invaluable,” he says.
“They got me talking to people working in the same direction who were positive about what could be achieved. It was so encouraging and really helped me.
“To this day I still keep in touch with this group and we share information and knowledge, so we can improve.”
In the five years since the cows were turned out, in April 2013, Mr Henderson has strived to improve grassland.
“I am always learning, but now am a little obsessive,” he adds.
He says it is all about residues and ensuring grass is at an optimal length to provide nutrition and regrowth.
“I use a plate meter every week to measure grass and calculate grass yield. It is the most valuable hour each week I spend on the farm,” Mr Henderson says.
“You have to be adaptable, depending on growth. Obviously 2018 was exceptional, so we had to add some straw and molasses to the diet as grass growth virtually stopped in July.”
However, Mr Henderson says he managed to maintain performance and with little additional cost.
“We cut silage depending on grass allocation for cows, and because we have the flexibility of having our own machinery, this can be up to nine cuts a year – basically taking out the surplus grass for our rotations,” he says.
Cow breeding has also been a focus, and Mr Henderson says the existing herd of Holsteins was not efficient enough for the grassbased system he was embarking on.
“I wanted a smaller functional cow that was low maintenance and produced milk profitably,” Mr Henderson adds.
“We crossed the Holsteins to Jerseys and within just a small time have seen drastic improvements. They are aggressive eaters, deep-bodied with capacity for forage and just keep going with no fuss.”
Now all forage is home-grown and concentrate usage has reduced from 3.5 tonnes at its peak to about a tonne per cow.
Mr Henderson says: “I still want to reduce concentrates, focus on soils management and get a system that uses the most effective varieties for the farm, but this will take time.
“I do believe though, that given the opportunity of more land, I could grow grass well, and I could not have said that a few years ago.”
Daniel Turnhout, farm solutions manager for LIC, has been working with Mr Henderson during the transition period.
He says: “I think many farmers can learn from Richard’s experience and even if they do not choose to extend their grazing season as much as him, they can learn how best to manage their grassland to increase milk from grass – which in the UK is the most profitable feed available.”
Mr Henderson says everyone can make improvements, but 100 per cent commitment is need to fully change a system.
“There is no doubt there are improvements to be made, but I am really happy with the progress,” he says.
“The transition to this system was relatively low cost. We already had farm tracks, so we put some quarry waste on them with some dust on top and split our paddocks with single wire fencing.
“Other than that, the investment was in time to understand how to make this work.
“We plan to make this business stronger, continuing our focus on costs, making more milk from grass, succession planning and looking for opportunities to expand.”