The focus farms have seen an average increase in gross margin/cow of £115 across the project in year one. The first question people ask is what did they do to achieve this increase? Unfortunately there is no single change that occurred on-farm that can achieve this level of increase. It is a combination of many small tweaks and changes, that together, add up to make a significant impact on the bottom line.

1) Cull non-performers

One thing each of the farms have become very strict on is the culling of under- or non-performing animals on farm. To run a profitable livestock enterprise, every animal on the farm must be bringing something to the party. If an animal is not productive, they are costing you money every day that they remain on farm.

Last spring, any cow that wasn’t rearing a calf did not see the bull again. Likewise, once the strict breeding period was finished, cows were scanned and anything not in calf was marked for culling. Too often these animals remain on-farm and slip from spring herd to autumn herd and back again. This is a cost no farm can afford. With the current prices being achieved for cull cows, it makes absolutely no sense for these animals to be on-farm.

2) Extend the grazing season

Last spring the focus farms made the most of the excellent conditions and turned out cattle up to six weeks earlier in some cases. Every day at grass is going to cost less than indoors, typically in the region of £1.50/cow/day. While this may be limited this spring, it shows the importance of being ready to turn cattle out if the grass and conditions are there. Even still, we will plan to have at least some cattle out in the coming week to 10 days on the farms which will ease the winter feed bill.

3) Address soil fertility issues

While this is a longer-term payback, many of the farms have already seen the benefit of lime spread last spring, with fields growing more grass further into the back end of the year than had previously been seen. The farms will continue to work to improve soil fertility, a detailed plan is in place on the farms and problem fields have been identified.

Most of the farms had at least some fields with sub-optimal pH levels. Correcting pH alone will increase grass growth by around 1 tDM/ha. This is worth around £50/ha. It will also increase the amount of nitrogen released from soil organic matter by up to 80kg/ha/yr, again worth around £60/ha.

4) Make better use of grazed grass

All of the farms moved some of the grazing groups on-farm to a rotational grazing system. On four of the six farms, this led to surplus grass being taken out as silage. In a set stocking situation, this grass would have been wasted as it headed out and grass quality in front of grazing stock would have been poorer, leading to reduced daily liveweight gains. Each farm will do more rotational grazing this year as they look to further increase daily liveweight gains from pasture.

While some of the farms feared rotational grazing would lead to a lot more work for little added benefit, all are now convinced that there is little or no added labour once you are set up correctly for it and animals thrive better, are quieter and easier to herd on the system.

5) Make better-quality silage

When we talk about making better-quality silage we are focusing on feeding young, growing stock. All of the farms in the project winter young stock to be either sold in the spring or finished later in the year. Therefore, they cannot afford to take a check in liveweight gain. If all you are feeding for the winter is dry spring-calving cows then of course, poorer-quality silage is more than sufficient.

Silage quality was improved by shortening the growing days of the crop. The longer the crop is growing the more mature it will become. As a silage crop heads out it becomes more fibrous and digestibility will be reduced by 3%/week. On average, the silage quality being offered to growing stock this winter was equivalent to an extra 0.25kg liveweight/animal/day.

The farms are planning now for first-cut silage, as where fertiliser is going out this weekend, you are looking at a harvest date of the end of May/first days of June.

6) Manage body condition

This works for both cows and ewes. Before we domesticated these animals, their natural instincts were to build up body condition during the summer months that would help carry them through a period of reduced nutrition during the winter. Why should this be any different now? With slight management changes, cows were housed in better condition last back end, albeit after a difficult second half to the season.

Body condition was maintained through earlier weaning of calves. As all farmers will know, there’s nothing like a few weeks of bad weather in autumn with cows feeding heavy calves to strip condition off their backs. To avoid this, calves were weaned earlier and supplemented where necessary, while cows were allowed to maintain condition coming into the house which reduced their winter diet costs.

7) Reduce wintering costs

Winter costs are the greatest cost on each of the farms. Therefore, anything we can do to either reduce the length of the winter or reduce the cost of the feed and housing will have a significant impact on overall farm profitability.

Through better silage quality on-farm, growing stock were fed less concentrates while maintaining daily liveweight gains.

As outlined above, bringing dry cows into the winter period with condition on their backs meant we could reduce the winter diet cost. Some of the farms moved to straw-based diets which reduced the overall straw requirement as bedding was reduced with drier diets being fed.

Scrape passes were installed in some of the sheds to reduce bedding requirement, this has been shown to reduce the total bedding required by up to one third.

8) Rest grass during winter

Again, this is another change that won’t be fully appreciated until just now when grass growth is starting to take off again and stock return to pasture. Spring growth can be slow where ground is completely bared off in late autumn or during the winter months. Keeping even the smallest cover of grass on fields allows ground to hold heat better and gives the grass plant more surface area to take in solar energy and start growing once more.

This was achieved on the farms by growing some form of fodder crop for at least some of the winter period. Costings on these crops are very attractive in the region of £60-£70/tDM.

9Simplified production systems

Like most farmers, each of the focus farmers are extremely busy throughout the year. In fact, they are often so busy maintaining the farm business they don’t have time to manage their farm business. A lot of what we have done on the farms has been about streamlining the workload. So yes, they are still busy, but by having more even batches of animals on farm, routine tasks become simpler and are carried out less often. Compact calving is one such example.

Calving everything over a 10-12 week period may be busy, but once it’s done, it’s done! After which jobs such as tagging, de-horning, dosing, weaning, and housing all become a one-off job.

Measured performance

The focus farms have embraced data. ‘Data’ is often a word that sends shivers down a farmer’s back. However it need not be the case.

Farm-generated data can help make informed decisions – which cows/bulls are performing well? What cows are consistently calving every 365 days and weaning a heavy calf at the end of the year? Can I keep heifers off these cows? What are my daily liveweight gains at grass? What are my daily liveweight gains during the winter? Where can I improve? If we don’t measure performance, we go from one year to the next not knowing exactly what part of the business needs the most attention.

Also the benchmarking has been one of the most rewarding exercises that the farms have completed. As they got the results back in the last couple of weeks, it reaffirms the benefits of the changes they have made and motivates them to push themselves and their businesses further in the coming year.