For farmers attending the conference Knowles’s presentation was very appropriate as we move towards 2015 and as he has effectively being producing milk from a grass-based system in a quota-free type environment for the past number of years.
Knowles’ journey in milk production has in some ways come full circle. In the 1980s along with his father on their farm near the coast in Cornwall, Holstein bulls were used for a number of years in an intensive system which resulted in cows being milked there times a day for a time during that period pre quota introduction in 1984.
On return form agricultural education in the early 1990s the farm faced a number of challenges with a rapidly changing UK dairy industry and falling prices. Knowles made the decision that changes had to be made on his farm and it was on a discussion group trip to Ireland where he found his inspiration.
He said: “I had what you call a eureka moment” on this trip in 1999. On the farm of Jim Dwyer Knowles identified very few similarities with his own farm apart from the fact the herd size was the same. He described a scene “were in the first week of October, his farm was full of grass his cows were grazing it day and night and my cows were in”.
From then on he noted: “I must learn how to graze grass not mow it.”
Since 1999 cow numbers have double on his farm, output per cow has reduced, concentrates per cow has almost halved, and silage use has halved. Although production costs have increased the margin between his costs and his milk price is healthy once more.
Knowles noted: “That expansion is not a perfect science” he has had to buy land where and when it becomes available.
He outlined that his reasons for sticking to a grass based system in a non-quota environment is mainly because he believes “if you stick with a grazing based system and you keep it simple it is inevitable profitable, more enjoyable and in the end more sustainable.”
However Knowles had a health warning for Irish farmers. He said: “In the post quota era there will be salesmen trying to encourage you to increase milk production per cow . He will have a glossy brochure filled with amazing productivity claims that you could benefit from. They will be trying to distract you from your simple grass based system and relieving you of your extra profit.”
“I have seen this first hand in England. They have increased inputs and often complications, increased costs and ended up in what I call no man’s land.”
Knowles stressed: “It is a challenge to dairy business managers to seek and find the optimum point at which to operate. Which is not necessarily the maximum point.”
He advised farmers to “plan expansion carefully; there tends to be cut of points as herd numbers increase for example, within UK grazing based systems, 300 cows requires one person milking for the majority of the year. If the herd size increases to 350 cows two people are needed and efficiency is lost”.
Knowles concluded: “Managing a dairy farm is very similar to managing any business. We are actually deployers of capital. Any investment that increases the quality or quantity of grass your farm produces has a huge correlation to overall business profitability and so represents a great return on investment.
Key farm stats:
• Mix of Friesian and Jersey-cross cows, 25 per cent crossbred
• February calving
• Now farming 680 acres, 175acres of which is moorland.
• 280 cows, 83 in calf heifers, 146 yearling heifers, 16 breeding bulls
• Reseed 5-7 per cent of the farm annually
• Father part time as well as 2 full time staff and some relief milking work
• Optimum cow performance- 850kg, 5,500 litres/cow/year at 450 kg milk solids