Our Farm and How It Works

Wed, 16/02/2022 - 19:15pm

On the recent Panorama programme ‘A Cow’s Life’ looking at animal welfare in the dairy industry, the deputy leader of NFU Wales - who is a conscientious, welfare-friendly dairy farmer - said it might be possible that all dairy farmers would be following a cow-with-calf dairying system in 20 years’ time.

I don’t think there will be more than a couple of dozen UK dairy farmers who would agree with that sentiment, but the comment was interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the speaker said that the industry had to listen to the needs of its customers - if people want cow-with-calf milk and are willing to pay for it then farmers needed to step up. The second interesting thing was that the deputy NFU Cymru leader is female.  

It is a fact that 90% of support for our farm comes from women. Women also make the vast majority of the domestic food-buying decisions within UK households. So while the dairy industry blusters about ‘one-off’, ‘rotten egg’, ‘we’re not like that’ stuff while hunting for a scapegoat to blame – and who better to turn your wrath on than the outsider whistle-blower – they ignore completely one important stark warning.

And that is this - the creeping normalisation of poor animal welfare in livestock farming will not be tolerated by customers any longer. Either step up or in 20 years there won’t be a dairy industry.

We are now into our 6th year of cow-with-calf dairying and we are finally getting it to work. The journey hasn’t been easy or cheap. There has been very little additional support from anywhere. We have applied to various funding bodies to help with our research but fail their criteria because we aren’t producing some kind of fancy tech widget at the end of it all.

Even the dairy industry see us as something of a threat because our success in making cow-with-calf dairying work blows apart their arguments against calls for higher welfare dairy. If we can make a dairying system work on a tenanted farm, employing 3 full time people, with only 125 cows and when the calves are drinking 40% of our organic milk, then why isn’t everyone doing it?

Dairy industry economists, advisers and policy people generally believe that to be economic you need at least 300 cows, so how can our approach be economically viable? It’s just crazy!

Well, here’s a quick summary of how we do it.

We need to start with our conversion to organic almost twenty-five years ago.

Ten years after we stopped drenching our pastures in chemicals we saw pasture yields recover, as our soil biological health began to actively feed the increasingly biodiverse plants in our pastures. We saw green dock beetles and their larvae controlling the docks, dung beetles breaking up and cycling the nutrients and carbon in the dung deposits. Dandelions increased noticeably, adding food for insects and birds while contributing positively to the nutrient density of the pastures, and the clovers increased dramatically, right across the farm, driving up production.

By changing our management approach from one where we used chemical interventions to force production to one where we facilitated natural productivity, we achieved good yields and we had driven out the cost of chemicals. This led to our most profitable years in dairy farming and gave us the confidence to go the next step.

Could we do the same thing with our animals? If we could give them a more natural, less stressful life, would they repay us with better health and productivity outcomes? There was only one way to find out.

We were about to build a new dairy from scratch, so we explored how to incorporate facilities for a suckling system into the new build.

First we talked to family. The non-farmers supported us but the farmers, especially dairy farmers, thought it was a crazy idea. Next we went to see cow-with-calf dairies in action. The only place we could find any at the time was in the Netherlands. We all came back thinking, “Yeah, we could do that!”

So, on completion of the new dairy complex we trialled cow-with-calf dairying with 37 cows and their calves in the autumn of 2012. It was horrendous.

In the past, when the cows had come out of the milking parlour on the first milking after calving, they had always found that their calf had been taken away, but not now.

The cows didn’t know what was going on. Maybe their calf would be taken away the next time they went in for milking? They didn’t know the rules anymore and dreaded the parlour. They got stressed, they wouldn’t let milk down and some got mastitis and went lame. There was less than half the milk in the milk tank. The calves began stealing milk from other cows who would, naturally, object, resulting in cuts on some of the cows’ teats from the razor sharp calves’ teeth.

The next problem was the milk quality. Instead of being 5% butterfat – good for cheesemaking – the milk from the cows that the calves were suckling was ‘semi-skimmed’ – only 1.8% butterfat, hopeless for cheesemaking. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, there was something called lactational anoestrous where the normal return of oestrous cycles after calving was delayed by about 35 days. As we only had a window of 65 days in which to get them back in-calf (we block calve) this was something of a disaster.

Six months of that was enough. To be blunt, if we had continued any longer it would have bankrupted us. I pulled the plug and we walked away feeling somewhat relieved. We’d given it our best shot and it clearly didn’t, and couldn’t, work. Perhaps everyone in the industry was right after all?

However, as I’ve found so often on this journey, fate intervened and now here we are ten years later, into our 6th year of cow-with-calf dairying. It is clearly working and the success of this system is down to the dedication and commitment of our small team. We have created something that, I believe, is quite remarkable. So let me explain why it worked the next time we tried it.

Our cow-with-calf dairy farming system isn’t just about leaving cows with their calves. Sure, that’s the icing on the cake, but our approach is based on a complete system change and the mindset change needed to address and manage this new system.

Previously, we had been used to intervening and expecting instant results, but biological systems simply don’t work like that. It can be years before you see results, but when they do come, those results can be not just better, but much less harmful to the land, the environment, the animals and, ultimately, to us.

Every year we used to go through more than 100 tonnes of soluble fertilisers, 75 tonnes of lime; several thousand litres of weedkiller and hundreds of doses of worm drench; hundreds of doses of anti-biotic and vaccines and 240 tonnes of purchased and mineralised, cereal and soya stock feed.

We now use no soluble fertilisers, only 20 tonnes of lime, no weedkiller and only a handful of doses of worm drench, about 25 doses of anti-biotic each year, one course of vaccine which ends this year, and 100 tonnes of purchased feed which is just dried lucerne – a legume. No cereals, no soya and no minerals.

We have cut the following annual inputs out of our farming system, and consequently we have reduced the associated annual costs:

  • 100 tonnes of fertilisers
  • 55 tonnes of lime
  • Multiple thousands of litres of weedkiller
  • Hundreds of doses of worm drench
  • Hundreds of doses of anti-biotics and vaccines
  • 140 tonnes of feed

Right now, the prices for those inputs that we no longer need are shooting up. In total, what we’ve cut out of our system would cost over £100,000 this year. So, this way of farming directly reduces our costs.

We are rearing an average of one calf per cow in the herd. The calves are growing at more than twice the rate of the calves when we were bucket rearing them. Since we are no longer bucket feeding calves, we need less staff, so our staffing requirements have also reduced - although we have chosen to re-invest that staff time in looking after the herd’s welfare.

The cows are milking really well. On this 100% forage diet a cow is normally expected to produce around 4-4,500 litres of milk in a year. We know from our trial work here that our calves drink an average of 15 litres of milk a day. Over the 5 months they are with their mothers they are drinking 2-2,500 litres of milk. We are getting 3,000 litres and every year that gets better. So our cows are giving us a total of 5-5,500 litres a year and that is still increasing. Undoubtedly the suckling and the low stress environment is stimulating milk production.

With the calves growing so quickly, they are reaching marketable and breeding ages more quickly. So, instead of 100 milking cows with all their youngstock through to 26-32 months of age, we now have 125 cows and youngstock to 8-26 months of age. This means the farm is much more resource efficient than it was before, and it’s also more resilient.

It doesn’t matter to our farm that the price of fertilisers and drugs is going through the roof. That doesn’t affect us at all. Even feed price rises only affect us a little bit. Our system has, perhaps, enabled us to throw off the shackles of corporate parasites, sucking the life out of farmers and the planet. Maybe the biggest change of all is that we have taken back control.

When you consider the benefit to biodiversity of not using all these toxic chemicals and the lack of run-off into water-ways and contribution to anti-biotic resistance, not using food that is grown on land where tropical forests once grew or that could be eaten by humans, the question is, why isn’t everybody farming this way?

Within the next two years our unit cost of producing a litre of milk – in an organic, 100% forage system - will be no more than our 2000-cow neighbour.

It is not the cost of production that’s expensive; it’s what’s involved in getting our small scale artisan products to our customers that adds the costs.

If the UK dairy industry switched to this system across the board, I am confident that the food in the shops would cost no more than it does right now. Will the industry switch? Well, that depends on what the public and the government demands. 

David Finlay