Fantasy farming

 

Imagine a dairy farm running 50 cows, which were milked once a day whilst their calves were left to suckle until they reached six to eight months of age, producing high quality milk and meat to be processed on farm and sold direct to local customers.

The herd I have described above sounds very old-fashioned and lots of reasons not to run a herd like this spring to mind, like:

  • the milk output is too low
  • the calves will drink all the milk
  • it will be chaos trying to separate cows and calves at milking
  • you’ll get cell count problems

So why am I wasting time thinking about it?

My experience with Montbeliarde cows has taught me that a dairy cow has so much more to offer than just 1,000’s of litres of the ‘white stuff’ and there is considerable scope to simplify our farming and reduce costs. Think about the following:

  1. We can produce less litres but of a higher quality (higher fat and protein levels). For instance the Montbeliarde breed there is a high level of BB-variant kappa casein, which means more cheese can be made from every litre of milk.
  1. A male calf from a robust dairy breed such as a Montbeliarde or British Friesian makes a very good beef calf, which will grow into a very valuable animal if suckled on its mother.
  1. The cows only have to be milked once a day, with the calf effectively doing the second milking, which leaves the farmer time to do other jobs or even enjoy some time off!
  1. Calf rearing is an expensive business. Milk powder replacements for mother’s milk currently cost around £1,500 a tonne (costing around £40 a calf) and dry feeds have become increasingly costly too.
  1. Hand rearing of calves requires close attention to detail if we are to avoid losses through pneumonia and scours. The cow will do a far better job of rearing its offspring than we can do and she does the work for us, saving us time and money.
  1. There is less stress on the cow and calf. Under a suckled system the calf will naturally wean itself off milk as the cows milk supply dries up and the calf adapts to eating grass and dry feed. There is no ‘forced’ separation of cow and calf.
  1. The cow is under less pressure as she is only milked once a day and can spend more time feeding and resting. This also means she spends less time walking to and from the milking parlour.

Financially how does this look? Are the savings in calf rearing costs, labour and feed combined with gains in milk value, calf health, cow health, beef income able to deliver a higher margin than a herd of cows milked twice a day with calves hand reared from two days of age?

Well, I haven’t got all the answers but I think this is worthy of further investigation and I do know one or two farmers are trying this system. One of them is David Finlay, who milks around 140 cows with calves at foot to produce his Cream O’Galloway ice cream up in Scotland. Another is the Calf at Foot Dairy in Suffolk, run by Fiona Provan, where her Jersey cross cows are managed to Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) standards.

I am interested to learn more about the practicalities and economic of such a farming system. If anyone can provide with further information please get in touch.

 

2 Responses to Fantasy farming

  • I saw this system in the Swiss Alps a year or two ago. But herds are very small (10 cows) and very heavily subsidised. A farm of 11ha is big and attracted a payment of about £15,000 a year. Very much “Heidi” farming to keep the Alps looking good for tourists. All the milk went to the local creamery for cheese making.
    I suspect in the UK in a niche market and with ++ marketing it could work.

  • I was involved in fantasy farming in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s – 70 Friesians, milked twice a day, grazed during the spring/summer/autumn months, self-feed silage, flat-rate in-parlour feeding and a mid-morning feed of sugar-beet pulp during the winter housed period.
    All bull calves (Sussex x Friesians and Friesians) went less than half-a-mile up the road to a pasture-based beef farmer.
    Heifer calves were given colostrum (stored in churns) until moved on to cake/hay/straw diet and we never had any health issues whatsoever.
    The herd were quiet, the vet a stranger and all on a 5-day week!

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