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Once A Day Milking - The Future Of Grass Based Dairies

23 January 2012

Nathan Pryor farms in West Cornwall, in partnership with his family. Speaking at the British Grassland Society's From Grass to Profit conference, he explains why once a day milking is the future of grass based dairying.

Introduction

I farm in west Cornwall in partnership with my family. The milking platform is 104 ha and we have 100 ha available as support land for heifers and winter feed. We have been milking once a day milking (OAD) for the last three years. The change to OAD has brought many benefits to the farm business, the cows and to those who work on the farm. I will outline the reasons behind our change to OAD, the impact that OAD has had on the farm and also some factors to consider if you are planning to change to OAD.

Why the change to OAD milking?

Reasons for change

We were in our 7th year of twice a day block spring calving in 2008 and I was finding the system was more complicated and harder to operate than I desired. Some of the issues that I was unhappy with are outlined below:

  • Lifestyle – This was my main reason for changing to OAD. I have a young family and wanted to be able to spend more time with them and enjoy them growing up. The decision to go OAD was made in August 2008. The decision was triggered by a very wet summer which had put pressure on cows and people alike at a time of the year when the farm should be very simple to operate. There had to be a more simple and enjoyable way to run a dairy farm. I was very fortunate that there had already been a couple of early pioneers of OAD which allowed me to make the change with confidence.
  • Cow condition – We wish to operate an all grass system and for cows to be fed only grazed pasture during the whole lactation. At certain times of the year cow condition would be lower than desired especially if the weather was unfavourable. We were ending up with too many light cows at drying off that required large amounts of high quality feed during the winter to ensure adequate condition score at calving.
  • Lameness – The amount of lameness suffered by the cows was another reason for the change. In previous seasons when we switched to OAD in the autumn we saw a lower prevalence of lameness. The treatment of lame cows is both time consuming and expensive. The change to OAD milking offered the opportunity to reduce lameness and allow improved welfare for the cow and the operator.
  • Empty Rates – After a number of years of selecting bulls for fertility and using best practice for breeding I was unhappy with empty rates in the herd. Empty rates were running at 12% after 12 weeks of breeding. Other farmer experience of OAD indicated that we could improve on this.
  • Hard on people – I felt that twice a day milking at times of the year was hard on people who work on the farm. It often means people have to come back from family activities to milk cows or they are unable to commit to playing sport as it clashes with afternoon milking. I believe that you should not ask people to do a job that you are not prepared to do yourself. OAD milking is far more compatible with life outside of farming and allows people to have a more sociable working week.

Impact of OAD on the farm business.

The widely held perception of OAD milking is that is suitable for those who seek a better lifestyle and are prepared to lose out financially. Our dairy farm business was performing very well before we made the switch and is performing even better financially now than before. We did a detailed budget and forecast a reduction in operating profit of £100 a hectare in our first year of OAD milking. Three years down the line we are in a better position than we would have been on TAD. The reasons for this are numerous and some of the most important ones are listed below:

  • Lifestyle/People Welfare. – The concept of working less to earn more may come as a surprise to some people. However, I strongly believe that OAD milking allows people to become more productive and efficient. The principles of profitable grass based dairying are well understood and relatively simple. The key to deploying them profitably in your business is the consistent application of them. By removing a milking and its associated activity it allows people to apply these principles relentlessly as they have more time to think, plan and manage the farm. With more sociable working practices peoples job satisfaction improves and they take more pride in their work. There is now more time to hear the birds sing and watch the sun rise. Staff retention is greatly improved which means the key decision makers are not continually changing which allows the farm to run more efficiently.
  • Production – The change to OAD milking did lead to a reduction in milk solids of around 30% per cow for us, the herd is mainly Friesian. Table 1 outlines the changes in production.

Table 1 Milk production

  2008 TAD 2009 OAD 2010 OAD 2011 OAD
Litres per cow 4200 2900 3400 3550
Solids per cow 340 247 295 305
Solids per hectare 1122 790 973 1006

After the initial drop in production the cows are recovering well and now production is only 10% below the starting level. In the first year you have to expect a large drop in production, after that however cows recover well.

  • Cow condition has improved dramatically and cows are always a pleasure to look at, their weight is far more stable without big swings in condition. Heifers in particular just blossom and just continue to develop which leads to a much higher retention rate. One of the unforeseen benefits of this is greatly reduced requirements for winter feed our biggest problem in the winter is now preventing cows from becoming over fat.
  • Lameness has virtually been eliminated from the farm at all times of the year except in the autumn when it is wet. This allows the cows to have a higher level of welfare and it is more enjoyable to fetch the cows for milking.
  • Fertility is improved due to the cows being under less pressure. We consistently achieve submission rates of 99% in 24 days with no vet intervention. This combined with higher conception rates allows us to calve 50% in 14 days and 85% in 6 weeks with no heifer synchronisation. Overall our empty rate has reduced to 6% in 11 weeks.
  • Weather is no longer such an influence on the business. The cows performance is far more consistent, cold, wet and hot weather now have very little effect on cows production. They are under so much less pressure and are far more easily able to consume enough pasture in all conditions.

Factors for success in changing to OAD

After three years of OAD milking I believe the correct decision was made for the business and my family. I still think too many people do not truly believe that OAD milking is applicable to them and they list various reasons for not making the change. However I believe OAD is an option open to the vast majority of grass based dairy farmers. I will outline three key factors that I believe are important for making a successful change to OAD.

Belief – The ability to fully commit and embrace the change to OAD is in my opinion by far the most important success factor in changing. The moment you realise that OAD is for you is so invigorating.

Once you fully commit to OAD you will find solutions to the only slight drawback of OAD. In the first season you will most likely see a small drop in operating profit.

However this must be seen as investment in your future and that of your farm. I have not yet met one person who fully committed to the change who would consider milking cows TAD again. The information is now widely available to make the change with confidence.

Cost Control – The control of costs in your business has to be good and there is more time to budget and plan. Cow health is far superior and better management decisions can be made. These benefits need to be captured and once they are business profitability can be equal to or greater than before the switch.

Grassland Management is the key driver of profitability on all of our farms. It needs to be good in order to capture the OAD cows ability to convert grass to milk cheaply and easily. Supplementing OAD cows with expensive supplement because of wasted pasture or poor feed budgeting will not allow the full benefits of OAD to be captured.

Conclusions

  • OAD milking is a fantastic way to milk cows and to operate a farming business
  • The benefits to the cows and to those who work on the farm are huge
  • The biggest barrier to change is your mindset.

I have only been able to mention some of the benefits there are many others.

January 2012

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