How technology is helping in the battle against dairy prices
At a time when cutting back was key, investing in technology paid off for one dairy farmer. Chris Berry reports.
When the milk price crashed two years ago, every dairy farmer was forced into looking at costs and for some it forced a radical change.
Andrew Avison of Middlefields Farm, Melmerby near Leyburn, had switched from encompassing a sheep, beef and dairy operation to a dairy and grass enterprise on the family partnership’s near-600 acres three years earlier. He increased his cow numbers to 300, benefitting initially when the milk price rose to 33 pence per litre, before watching it plummet to 18ppl last year, well below his and his consultancy’s worst-case scenario. Something had to be done and it was his investment in farm machinery that was to bear the brunt, although one piece of kit he has invested in he now regards as one of his best moves in the past 18 months.
He said: “Before the milk price started to drop I had already looked at what we were spending on new machinery. Our consultants had said it was a big cost that wasn’t the most productive. I looked at it closely and saw they were right.
“I’m sure a lot of dairy farmers may have raised their eyebrows when they saw me getting rid of £200,000 worth of machinery but that’s what I did, put all the work out to tender and Perceval agricultural contractors now undertake it for us.”
The one machine Andrew purchased was a new Keenan diet mixer wagon.
“I suppose to some it might have seemed stupid to come out of machinery and yet buy the Keenan but my point was about becoming more efficient and to get the best results from my dairy herd,” Andrew said. “The Keenan we purchased has saved us half the feeding time and has proved fundamental in our drive to keep costs down.”
Where Andrew feels the Keenan has scored big time is through the Pace technology that is used and the InTouch feeding specialist service.
“You think you know what you’re feeding but really you haven’t a clue until what comes out on the reports we get from InTouch,” he said. “If the print-out says you’ve managed to overfeed them by 10 per cent that could equate to something like £800 extra cost per month that you needn’t have had. The Pace Technology clocks everything that goes through the machine.”
Chris Lord is Andrew’s InTouch Keenan feeding specialist who lives at Hunton near Leyburn. He’s a dairy farmer’s son from South Cumbria.
“It is often said there are three diets within each one that is fed – there’s the one the nutritionist sets, the one fed out to the cows and the ones the cows actually eat,” he said. “Pace manages all of that by giving the operator a check on following what the nutritionist is telling you to put in and what is actually put in.
“The diet feed is then mixed using paddles that don’t stress the fibre structure of the forage and in such a way that the animals are not able to be selective about what they are eating as well as being palatable. The aim is that every single mouthful each cow takes is identical to the last. Andrew can find out quickly through the Pace technology and InTouch if he has put something in incorrectly and that helps his bottom line as well as improving cow performance.”
Andrew wants feed conversion efficiency and believes Keenan and InTouch technology through Pace has played a pivotal role while the milk price remains low and that future benefits will be derived as a hopeful return to better prices comes in future months when he also intends to increase his dairy herd to 400 milking cows.
“When times are hard everyone looks for efficiency and this way I can see day on day just how much it is costing to produce a litre of milk,” he said. “I can go to my computer screen now and tell you what has been fed out of the Keenan yesterday and how much it has cost and saved me, whether I have overfed or underfed and the make up of its dry matter.
“Traceability doesn’t lie. You can’t pretend you’re doing something right if you’re not. Some people think that just because their cows are eating loads they will be making a lot more milk but it’s all about the right diet, the right amount and the right performance. Our cows are producing an average of 9800 litres per year in a high welfare indoor environment.”
Keenan feeder wagons are renowned globally with over 20,000 in use but as a result of the worldwide slump in the milk price the company, launched in County Carlow, Ireland in 1978, floundered as diet mixers and feeder wagons were their only machinery lines. Keenan is now owned by US nutrition specialists Alltech who took over the business in April this year.