31 July 2019
Best in class

Irish organic farming student wins top prize

31 July 2019
HAWL bursaries

Bursaries offered for three-day homoeopathy courses



21 March 2019
In adversity, what are farmers doing to be more resilient?

Opportunities, barriers and constraints in organic techniques helping to improve the sustainability of conventional farming

D4: Lean or fat? Making money from milk

Chair: Susanne Padel (ORC)

There are many different ways to run a successful dairy farm. Two of the speakers run unusual dairy businesses and present their model and ideas, some of which challenge accepted norms. The second part focuses on information farmers might be able to access when re-thinking their business. (Organized with support from OMSCo)

Session summary

Two interesting examples of low input systems, both involving milking once a day, were presented. One farm faces the challenge of drought, the other of high rainfall. Both are aiming to minimise costs. Brian Goodenough produces milk on a solids based cheese supply contract. He is now concentrating on improving his control of forage supply. Lucerne provides a vital resource in the dry season and a variety of winter forage crops help support the dry cows. David Finlay is preparing for a radical change to a business model he describes as “lean farming”. In practice he aims to achieve this by moving to a system where milk and beef are produced literally side by side. He plans to leave calves with the milking cows, running in cubicles with a creep area while housed, until they are sold at 11 months.

Whatever the system recording and monitoring of physical and financial performance are vital. Strengths and weaknesses are highlighted when one farm is compared with others. James Hanks illustrated how data collected through National Milk Records can be summarised and collated to show farmers how they are performing in comparison with others. Kathryn Rowland demonstrated how financial information can be used similarly, as the basis of discussion and planning for improvement. Although the traditional “margin over concentrate” measure might seem of low relevance to forage based organic herds, even this measure showed tremendous variation within a group of organic farms producing 6 -7000 litres/cow/year. Moving to the next level of detail, the costs of forage production were presented for a wide range of forages. Investment in forage production could be seen to be worthwhile since Kingshay’s full farm costings have shown that better whole farm performance is achieved by farms where forage costs represent a larger proportion of the variable costs.

Discussion points:

  • Once a day milking results in less pressure and more relaxed cows and staff. Oestrus detection has improved with more time to observe and stronger bulling activity
  • Mastitis did increase when milking moved to once a day, in the morning, but not necessarily in the cows where it was expected
  • Modern technology can collect a wealth of information (eg pedometers used on dairy cows); farmers need to know how to make the most of it
  • Both organic and conventional farms include good and bad record keepers

Action points:

  • The two farmers will keep in touch with each other!
  • It would be interesting to compare reasons for antibiotic use in organic and conventional herds

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

David Finley (Rainton Farm ‘Cream o’Galloway’): Lean farming (PDF 612KB)
What connects the Japanese post-war recovery and suckling dairy cows? In the context of climate change, resource depletion, food insecurity, healthy diets, developing antibiotic resistance, biodiversity loss and declining animal and social welfare standards, is not the dairy industry’s headlong rush towards greater intensification actually making all these things worse? We are told over and over by industry leaders, consultants and many agricultural scientists that this is the price we must pay for the production of adequate, affordable food – especially now, in times of financial austerity. Yet the fact is, these intensive systems are complex, wasteful and high cost. Their main beneficiaries appear to be those proponents mentioned above rather than farmers who are being caught in a vicious cost price squeeze caused primarily by resource depletion. Time for a fundamental rethink! We are about to implement an innovative, counter intuitive, dairy based food production system which is small scale yet, we believe, addresses to a large degree the issues mentioned above at competitive (even non organic!) prices, while releasing a substantial amount of food back into the human food chain.

Brian Goodenough (Eling Estate, Berkshire): My farm business - producing milk solids at low cost (PDF 631KB)
Eling Farm Dairy has undergone quite a few changes since a new dairy was built on a green field site in 2001, though always operating a grazing based system. Over the last two seasons we have settled down to spring calving, a cheese contract and once a day milking. In the last 12 months we have had 20.44 inches of rain – not quite the right place for a forage based business. Or is it? Increasing the area of lucerne, which has not been hampered by drought, has provided an insurance policy. To work within the challenges imposed by the risk of drought, I have realised that the only way forward is measuring and recording and monitoring. This already includes soil testing using the Albrecht and Reams system, and grass measuring with the plate meter. This spring we are going to add Brix readings which will give us a sugar reading and overall health of the plants. Grazing management is the key to plant growth and cow performance. With a better, more consistent diet I would expect milk solids to go up and health status to improve. Recording and monitoring production and health will be important to establish whether this is the case.

James Hanks (Pan-Livestock) and Kathryn Rowland (Kingshay): Information to highlight your herd’s strengths and weaknesses [1] (PDF 217KB) [2] (PDF 457KB)
Pan-Livestock: How do farmers and their technical advisers know they are focusing on the priority areas of their individual herds? A recent analysis of milk recording data from 112 herds supplying OMSCo provides a description of performance and, in particular, the wide variation currently achieved by commercial organic dairy herds. This talk will highlight the differences between farms and describes how this information is being used to help technical advisers and farmers tackle areas of greatest need. Records are essential to a business, particularly when it comes to making significant management decisions. There are many options available to dairy producers to monitor herd performance. By regularly assessing trends, any problems that may arise can be highlighted before they become too much of an issue. In this session we discuss the importance and benefits of accurate records, while focusing on up to date analyses and trends of organic herds.

Kingshay: There are several Key Performance Indicators that can highlight strengths and weaknesses. One way of easily recording herd performance on a monthly basis is using Margin over Purchased Feed costings, enabling easy comparisons to other similar herds. Good feed efficiency is vital in all organic systems and boosting milk from forage is a key route to better profits. Home produced forage crops cost less per tonne of dry matter than bought-in feeds and with good nutritional quality they will result in a lower cost per litre of milk produced. Other recording options include management accounts. Quarterly financial data can be analysed and compared to others. Although this can take more time to complete, it can highlight realistic areas where potential cost savings can be achieved.