PROFITABLE dairy farming means making every acre of the farm produce milk and keeping costs to a minimum including making increased used of contract labour and services, believes Shropshire farmer, Michael Oakley.
“We believe that there is very little we can do about milk prices, apart from maybe a penny of half-penny per litre here and there, so we have to look at producing our milk as cheaply and efficiently as possible,’’ he said.
Mr Oakley farms with his wife Davina. Their home, with sons Thomas, aged 11, Sam, 10, Miles, six and five-year-old Adam, is the 236-acre Lower Shadymore Farm, Dorrington.
The family came to the farm in 1931 when Mr Oakley’s grandfather took over the tenancy, his own father taking over in 1957, then Michael Oakley became the third generation tenant in 1989. Five years later, in January 1995, Mr and Mrs Oakley bought the farm.
Shadymore is an all-grass farm with 220 usable acres, the rest being woodland. There are also 85 acres of rented land down to a mix of grass and maize.
Ten years ago it was a traditional dairy farm with about 130 cows and a bull beef enterprise using beef calves bred from the dairy herd. Since then, the farm has been developed as a specialist dairy unit run using a flying herd and reaching 265 cows by April last year.
Then everything came to a jarring halt when the herd was lost to a foot-and-mouth disease contiguous cull.
“Once we got over the initial trauma and had cleaned up after the cull, we decided to take time to decide what we wanted to do both from a business and a family point of view.
“There were four months in which we could do very little on the farm. We used some of this period to visit New Zealand and to look at the possibility of farming over there. A major attraction was the lack of paper work compared to the UK, but we decided against emigrating, largely for family reasons.
“However, we did see some ideas that we thought we might be able to use at home.
“Simply we have a mortgage to pay – we invested in a new dairy and large 20/40 parlour just after we bought the farm – and needed to get back into full production as quickly as possible.
“I felt that dairy farming was what I knew best and liked, also the farm is well suited to dairy cattle. As far as possible we bought in replacement cattle in large batches, the initial restocking bringing 170 cattle with another 80 following days later.
“One problem we faced was that our herdsman did not want to come back after the enforced break from milking, so we had to find a new herds person.
“There was nobody suitable locally, so we had to look further afield and decided to try an agency, in this case Dairyforce.
“We felt that we were not experts at interviewing people. The last time we had appointed anyone was several years ago.
“We were also conscious that the person appointed would be in charge of a quarter of a million pounds worth of stock generating a third of a million pounds worth of turnover.
“By using the agency, we were presented with a short list of three suitable candidates, all fully checked out, and all capable of doing the job. We then made our choice, Dan Webster, aged 24.
“We have a contract with the agency for milking 295 days of the year. If, for any reason, our contract herdsman cannot milk, it is up to the agency to provide us with a suitable replacement.
“In overall cost terms there is little, if any difference, between using the agency and employing direct,’’ said Mr Oakley.
Mr Webster, who comes from North Yorkshire and trained at Newton Rigg College, Cumbria, is also happy with the arrangement, saying that working for an agency under contract has given him a wide range of experience. He had worked in New Zealand for a period milking a 1,500 cow herd.
Shadymore Farm is on clay soil with the grazing area split into 8-10 acre blocks. Grassland is medium to long term leys, policy now being to make leys last as long as practicable. Fertiliser usage is fairly heavy at 300 to 350 units of nitrogen per acre per year.
“There is no doubt that we will be moving towards a Australian/New Zealand extended grazing system to try to produce milk as cheaply as possible. But our grazing system tends to be more flexible than theirs; we do not have set periods for grazing our paddocks, really just grazing the grass available before moving on.
“We would also need to build tracks and to install a network of water troughs. Generally we are fed up with feeding silage and scraping slurry, especially with the new slurry regulations coming in, so the more time we can have the cows at grass the better,’’ said Mr Oakley.
“We use contractors for silaging, partly because it is difficult to find local people wanting to drive a tractor at 11pm. Our herdsman would be prepared to drive a tractor, but he cannot do this and start work at 5.30 am in the morning.
“Also we do not want the expense of machinery that is not used for 90 per cent of the year. In future it think dairy farmers like ourselves will run with the minimum of kit needed for everyday needs, bringing in contractors for other tasks,.
“We have installed automatic cow identification and will be fitting cluster removal systems in the parlour to smooth the passage of the cows through the parlour.
“Winter feeding is simple using a forage wagon to feed a mix of grass and maize silage supplemented by stepped flat rate concentrate given according to yield in the parlour.
“The herd is basically year- round calving, and we keep cows as long as they are productive. Milk yields are difficult to assess as we are settling down after restocking, but just before the herd was culled out in April last year we were running at about 8,000 litres per cow from about 2 tonnes of cake. Quality was average at about 4 per cent butterfat and 3.3 per cent protein.
“There has to be a future for dairying. There will be relatively small farms supplying niche markets such as organic but, for family farms like ours, the future has to be high volume, low cost production so that we can continue to make a profit in the face of low milk prices.’’