The real value of good advice

Paul Sloan's membership of the Feed Advisers Register (FAR) enables him to provide a comprehensive advice service for the entire enterprise.
Paul Sloan's membership of the Feed Advisers Register (FAR) enables him to provide a comprehensive advice service for the entire enterprise.
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Attention to detail and sound advice are among the key ingredients of a successful dairy business today according to producer Seamus Lappin who farms near Armagh in Northern Ireland.

Contrary to many of the current trends, he also believes that small, efficient businesses can succeed and thrive in the current climate. Seamus runs a family dairy farm and has been working on the farm for some thirty years, starting as a teenager working alongside his father. He has a herd of around 65 Holstein dairy cows with another 40 or so followers. All his milk goes to Linwood, a local liquid milk processor based in Armagh.

“The size of the herd has hardly changed over the past thirty years,” he said, “But what has changed is the yields that we are achieving. Fifteen years ago we were getting around 5500 litres per cow per annum, while our current yield is 10,100 litres per cow per annum. We have been able to remain competitive by increasing our yields, and I believe that small, well-run businesses definitely have a role in the future.

“For me the biggest challenge – like every producer in the country – is the volatility of markets. The lack of stability and uncertainty over prices mean you can’t plan and it’s very difficult to make longer term investments.”

Important to the development of the business over the last 10 years or so has been the input from Feed Adviser, Paul Sloan who not only supplies much of the feed used on the farm, but is a useful source of technical support and a sounding board for ideas. Paul has been around the feed industry in the province for a number of years. After studying at university he spent some time beef farming in Canada and has since held various positions in the local feed trade before setting up his own business partnership in 2005.

He is also a member and keen supporter of the Feed Adviser Register (FAR), which was established in 2013 by the Agriculture Industries Confederation (AIC), NIGTA’s affiliated organisation in GB. The Register provides a platform for professionals who have a proven record of competence in the field and delivers continual on-line training for those involved with giving livestock feed advice, as well as a new level of assurance for livestock producers.

Paul says that he doesn’t bring any easy answers to Seamus in terms of improving the business - it’s very much a partnership and it’s about a lot more than nutrition.

He continued: “I like to take a holistic approach to the business, looking at overall cow management and cow comfort, all of which come together to achieve greater efficiency, sustainability and animal welfare, as well as increased productivity. The balance of the rations is obviously important, but I like to think that I bring a total package to Seamus and the other farmers that I advise.”

Together Seamus and Paul have worked on a number of improvements including housing to improve cow comfort and feed space; better laneways for cows walking out to grass; dry cow nutrition; winter rations; and calf vaccination. This has produced dividends in terms of the health of the animals.

Paul said: “When you put this together with reduced feed inputs and increased productivity you have a business that is sustainable in every sense of the word.”

Seamus agrees with Paul that it is the all-round approach that has led to the increase in production.

“It’s been mainly led by diet, better cow management, vaccination and overall improvements in the day-to-day running of the herd,” he says, “However, if I had to pick out one thing, it would be the changes we have made to dry cow nutrition. This has made a big difference to how the cows calve and reach their peak with very few issues. Anything which improves the health of the animals is good for cow welfare and productivity too.”

Paul recommended introducing more straw to the dry cow diet using the Keenan Klassik feeder which allows the straw to be chopped and presented consistently.

Both Seamus and Paul believe that measurement is a key component of management and improving performance on the farm. As well as the annual yield figures of 10,100 litres, the herd is currently producing 32.6 litres per cow at 3.8 per cent butterfat and 3.2% protein with cows in milk for an average 200 days.

Each cow is consuming 3100 kg of concentrates per year. However, grass is a key component of the system put in place by Seamus and Paul. Weather allowing, the cows are turned out around 17th March and they are currently taking 18 litres off grass and feeding to yield in the milking parlour at 0.45 kg per litre above 18 litres.

There is a paddock system in use on the farm and the forage quality is exceptional. Seamus has been gradually replacing his swards to ensure that this remains the case. Silage quality is also good with figures of around 25 per cent dry matter.

For Seamus measurement and benchmarking of his performance are important. As well as an annual assessment of his performance by the Department of Agriculture, Seamus has also benefitted from the monthly discussion groups run by the College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) from its Greenmount Campus. These are attended by around 20 local dairy farmers.

As part of the group, figures are collected monthly for comparison including milk production, feed rates, and milk from forage

“It gives me an idea of where I am compared to the rest of group,” says Seamus, “It stimulates interest and maybe even a bit of competition, and it helps the members to continually improve what we do. I find it really useful to have that kind of benchmark and to be able to compare what I’m achieving with other members of the group.”

Going forward Seamus is not necessarily looking for further improvements in yield volumes, but he would like to consolidate what they have done to date and improve solids and animal health traits.

Seamus is also a supporter of the Feed Adviser Register and believes that it gives livestock producers a degree of confidence in the quality of the advice they receive that did not exist before.

More information about the Feed Adviser Register can be found at www.feedadviser register.org.uk. or by contacting inge.verwoerd@agindustries.org.uk