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Farm strategy: Clear objectives are set for newly formed 450 cow herd

Having no history in dairy farming allows Oliver Williams to take a fresh look at all aspects of milk production, unconstrained by prior experiences.


Here we look at his farm strategy and in our extended business section we look at his business objectives in greater detail.


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Farm strategy: Clear objectives are set for newly formed 450 cow herd

Until five years ago, Fairy’s Lodge Farm, near Kettering, was a suckler and arable unit but is now home to 450 dairy cows. And with no dairy herds within a 10-mile radius Oliver Williams, a fifth generation on the family farm, is having to follow a steep learning curve.


“Having worked on dairy farms I was always interested in going into milk production,” says Oliver.


“In 2014 we were running 120 sucklers and growing 150 acres of arable. We felt we needed to diversify and with the milk price looking good, we made the move into dairying.”


The plan was to establish a herd of 120 cows milked through two robots while retaining 80 sucklers, and Oliver bought a herd of 105 cows to kick start the unit.


Then the milk price tumbled and he had a system where cost of production was tied so, in January 2016, he faced the decision to either get out of milk or to do things differently.


The outcome was to sell the robots and instead install a 30:30 herringbone parlour as a way to reduce financing costs. The sucklers were sold to finance an additional 80 cows and, by August 2016, he was milking 200 cows.

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“Expansion was adopted as the best route to reduce overhead and resource costs with the goal of reducing cost of production. I work to a simple premise. I will make money so long as I am able to keep costs of production below the average milk price.


"And having no preconceptions I am able to challenge everything. If a litre will be profitable we will produce it. If it is will not be profitable it will not be produced.”


All costs are monitored using Promar Farm Business Accounts and Milkminder and Oliver works closely with Promar Regional Manager Emma Thompson who stresses the importance of full visibility on costs.


“If you are serious about managing costs you need to understand what drives all your costs and how they compare using realistic benchmarks,” she explains.


“Currently Oliver’s variable costs are 47% of turnover which is better than the Promar average of 49% and below the top 25% performance of 43%. By knowing where he stands and how each cost compares, we can set plans to reduce costs and monitor progress.”


The three-times-daily milked herd has continued to expand steadily and now numbers 450 cows averaging 10,170 litres at 3.96% fat and 3.39% protein selling to Arla on a Tesco contract.


“Now we are at our target herd size, it is all about efficiency and cost management,” Oliver continues. “We want to tighten everything up and challenge each part of the system.

“For example I was told repeatedly that I will not be able to produce enough good quality forage as I am in East Anglia. But why not? We are currently producing around 1,600 litres from forage, which is 60% more than the previous year and I see no reason why I should be targeting less than 4,000 litres.”


This year, he will be growing 150 hectares of maize and will be looking for five cuts from the 90 hectares of grass leys. And in a big change, he will be making all the silage using the farm team.


“In previous years, we mowed and tedded but a contractor picked the crop up. This meant we were cutting at the average maturity as it all had to be forage harvested in one go. This meant we were compromising on quality to fit in with the way we harvested the crop.


“By taking forage production in house, we can cut every field at the optimum time and pick it up after the optimum wilt which will increase feed value.


“It will also mean we can get slurry on in a more targeted way. If everything is cut in one block we cannot get round with the slurry quickly enough and we lose the fertiliser benefit. Cutting in smaller blocks will mean all fields will get the slurry in time and allow us to go for five cuts while reducing purchased fertiliser costs.”


The forage is the basis of the TMR fed to the all-year-round calving herd which is housed 365 days a year. The target is 70% maize and 30% grass as Oliver says maize is a less variable forage allowing a more consistent diet. The rest of the TMR comprises a blend, a bespoke mineral and a fat supplement.


A single milking diet is produced with cows fed twice a day.

There are four milking cow groups, two dry cow groups, a fresh calver group and a small straw yard. Oliver has just rejiigged cow grouping to improve efficiency.


“We always used to run as two groups, one of 210 cows and one of 180 with small fresh calved yards. But we found there was too much standing time around milkings, so we decided to move to smaller groups. We now have a 90 animal heifer group, a 90 cow open cow group and two groups of 105 pregnant cows.


“Reducing group size has reduced standing times and we are seeing increased dry matter intakes as a result. Parlour efficiency is maximised as all the groups are sized so we are always milking full sides. What is the point of having a parlour with 15 units per side then setting up the groups so you are not filling it? The only group that does not fill the parlour is the fresh calved group.”


Looking forward, Oliver accepts that herd replacement cost and reproductive performance are prime candidates for attention. Having purchased cows from various sources, he accepts replacement rate has been high as inevitably cows have had to be sorted out while the number of heifers home bred was fewer than required.


Now, with adequate replacements in the pipeline and having moved out cows that did not fit the system, he anticipates being able to reduce the number of heifers required.


“We have used Genus ABS RMS since November 2018 and it is having a big impact on fertility. We had been averaging a 20% pregnancy rate with our own staff. Now, through a combination of our team, RMS and CowManager, we are targeting a 23% pregnancy rate and 49% of cows are in calf within 100 days in milk. We target 8-10 calvings a week.


“Heifers have been coming in at 27 months but are now on target to calve at 24-25 months which will reduce total replacement costs.”


With a drive on efficiency and cost management, Oliver says having a stable team is crucial. He now has a team of nine full-time staff and two part-time tractor drivers who together are responsible for the 450 cows, youngstock and 380 hectares of forage and arable crops.


“Finding, attracting and retaining staff has been a challenge but I am fortunate now to have a really good team and together I am confident we can continue to increase cost efficiency and performance.”

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