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Farming issues tackled at Cornwall show

by
01 July 2011, at 1:00am

RICHARD GARD reports from the Royal Cornwall Show which featured a conference devoted to the main issues currently facing dairy farmers

VETERINARY surgeons were much in evidence at the Royal Cornwall Show where the Minister for Agriculture left a strong impression that a badger cull was less than likely. 

The veterinary stands were well attended with XL Vets highlighting issues with testicles and the Cornwall Veterinary Association demonstrating the value of pet recognition implants; Vetswest from Bideford was also listed. Veterinary presence may seem like a great deal of work for little gain but the presentations do give out a positive message of involvement with the farming and pet community. 

Anyone with an interest in agriculture would have gained new information from the “Farming Issues: Solutions and Opportunities” conference presented by Dairy UK and DairyCo. The topics ranged from inputs to lean management and nitrates to Operation Johne’s. 

The information presented and discussed was very much at the sharp end and veterinary surgeons from large animal practice would have been able to learn and contribute but there did not appear to be any attendees. 

The Royal Veterinary College and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency did attend and it is to be hoped that the opportunities identified filter through to students and decision makers.

Strategic review 

The conference came at an important moment as the report by the Dairy Science Forum is being circulated for consideration. Copies are available from the secretary John Sumner (sumner_john1@sky.com). 

Entitled A Strategic Review of UK Dairy Farming’s priorities for R & D and Knowledge Exchange for 2011-2021, the Forum indicates the need to rationalise research and to ensure that existing knowledge is appropriately disseminated into the industry. The main “pinch point” is in the area of knowledge exchange and implementation. 

When a further conclusion from the Forum, “Excellent standards of animal health and welfare will continue to be high on the list of consumer requirements in addition to being vital for profitable and sustainable milk production”, is considered with the lessons from Operation Johne’s, it is veterinary surgeons who are placed full frontal. 

However, the view of the vet has to fit with the other issues facing the
dairyman and veterinary inclusion will not be automatic. Many farmers and organisations that strongly influence farmers consider the vet as a technician rather than a consultant.  

The conference was opened by Jim Begg, director general of DairyUK. He recognises current turbulence within the dairy industry and the need to find solutions and exploit opportunities. 

Rex Ward, a Cornish dairy farmer, introduced the speakers and chaired the day with inciteful observations. Richard Stanbury (chairman of Agri Assist) is managing a group approach where ideas from individuals to reduce volatility with inputs are offered to approximately 600 farmers. The initiative is linked to Dairy Crest with all 1,350 members having the opportunity to participate. 

By bench-marking against others in the group, farmers can identify such options as using milk cooling to heat water but cost effectiveness of technology is essential. 

A carbon footprint tool is used to assess carbon equivalents of milk price per litre. It is important to measure inputs and then to manage them. Group buying of feed is one opportunity as individual farmers are not feed buying specialists. If the volatile fluctuations in input feed costs can be reduced by 10%, a gain of 0.9ppl is expected. 

Peter Blogg, head of commodity product management at NYSE Liffe, discussed agri futures and options. On one day in May, 90,000 contracts for wheat were traded electronically. Hedgers account for the majority of the futures contracts in order to protect against adverse price movements. This group is seen as having a physical link to the product and includes producer coops, trade houses, commodity processors, food and animal feed manufacturers. 

Investors are looking to make a profit from favourable price movements and increasing use of the futures market by agriculture is anticipated. Further information is available at www.nyx.com/commodities.

Benchmarking tool 

A DairyCo business benchmarking tool, Milkbench plus, has been evaluated and the findings from 338 farms were introduced by Peter Thorne. A report is due in November but early indications are that there is a wide variation with cost efficiency on farms. Many herds under 120 cows are unprofitable together with some larger herds of over 300 cows. 

Attention to detail by the milk producer is a consistent observation from the profitable herds. Efficiency is being further developed by Kay Carson of Reaseheath College who is working with farmers to achieve farm-specific objectives. 

The Lean Management Project aims to achieve a 15% increase in net margin per litre through increased production efficiency. Herd health is seen as part of the asset base together with soil management, labour application, buildings and machinery. 

Actions are taken on the basis of conclusions from the weekly review of data, which measures inputs and outputs. There is a group approach with a shift in focus from accepting outcomes to questioning under-performance. 

Kay said that “farmers like discipline and evidence-based support” with a measure, plan and deliver approach. She noted that lean management is not for everyone and some farmers have withdrawn from the project, with one commenting: “I just want to go back to farming.”  

The head of dairy policy at DEFRA, Richard Jones, outlined the EU proposals for regulation of the dairy sector with a code of practice, innovation, clear contracts and pricing structures. The price of milk will be up to individual negotiations or by producer groups. 

Further legislation, with “nitrate vulnerable zones” and the need for cost-effective compliance, was covered by John Morgan of Creedy Associates. Many farmers have yet to establish slurry storage with only a few months to go and there will be high costs for many with a minimal financial benefit. 

It is important for farmers to have individual field plans with manure spread and immediate ploughing. In many areas, NVZs are not a done deal and farmers are advised to apply for de-designation. This may mean stocking rate restrictions. 

Operation Johne’s has been supported by DairyUK and Dick Sibley of West Ridge Veterinary Practice complimented the industry on acting collaboratively. The disease has been viewed historically as a problem of scouring in brown cows but the production losses from apparently normal cows are being increasingly recognised. 

Importance of training 

By addressing the areas of risk for disease spread, practical management awareness is offering solutions, rather than depression, to individual farmers. Farmers are realising that their animals do not have to have Johne’s and they do not have to live with it. 

As there is no therapy or vaccine, results are achieved by one-to-one consultation with trained veterinary surgeons. Training continues to be highly important and the project, currently funded by the EU, pays for veterinary time on farm. It is still early days, with 73 herds having control and protection plans in place, but 900 dairy farms have shown an interest.

The project is expected to expand into Wales and the north-west of England and apply lessons learned from the south-west. The MyHealthyHerd software is being used to manage, measure and monitor the disease and findings and results are able to be interrogated and assessed. 

The whole Johne’s project model is highly interesting and likely to be applied with other diseases where veterinary advice is more important than therapy.

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