As this is my first article of 2020 I thought I might look back over 2019 but then, there seems to be a big thing in the media about looking back over the decade so here is a look back at what has changed here at Drum Farm over the 2010s.

At its heart this is a “family business” so before I get into the figures I’d like to give a few personal observations on “family”.

Back in December 2009 I had to make what was quite literally a life changing decision: at that point I was on a career break from my job with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer but then came the offer to make that break permanent as the company was looking to downsize.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make as I really enjoyed my life doing a normal 9-to-5 in Kent. But there is also the flip side of the coin in that “working for the man” doesn’t give the same gratification from a job well done, and also where I was working you could find yourself moved from project to project on the whim of the management.

Why this return home worked I think, is that I didn’t bring some transformational vision of what should be being done – how could I? My experience of agriculture over the previous umpteen years amounted to a few weeks at home on holiday each year. Rather I brought a different set of skills to the table and these worked well in synergy with those of Stuart and my Mum when we worked in partnership towards common objectives.

The second big change within family is that Stuart is now married with two beautiful daughters. Are they the future of the business? Who knows. All I would wish for them is that they gain as much from the experience of growing up on a farm as I did.

So switching tack and moving onto the more “business” side of things one thing that literally hasn’t changed much over the last 10 years is the milk price. In fact the price we are paid for our milk has only increased from 26.5p on average over 2009 to 28.2p, which is only 6% over the 10-year period.

Meanwhile we’ve seen our costs increase much more significantly. For example, the minimum wage as set by the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board is up 30% over that period. And cost of purchased feed for the cows is up even more at 40%.

So given the “static” milk price and the large increase in feed costs how have we managed to increase the margin-over-purchased-feed (MOPF) per cow from £1750 in 2009 to £2320 last year? Basically it comes down to trying to optimise the milk production of the cows.

In the last decade we’ve seen milk yields increase from just over 9500litres/cow to 13,300litres. Notably this hasn’t been at the expense of constituents with the combined fat and protein rising from just under 700kgs/cow to 950kgs.

Perhaps equally importantly with respect to controlling costs, the feed rate has actually stayed the same at 0.42kg of concentrate/litre of milk – in this regard to use the vernacular we’ve not been pushing the cows with hard feed.

So what have we been doing? Well probably the biggest change was back in 2010 when we switched to three-times-a-day milking. This probably gave an uplift of around 10-15% in milk initially although I think there are also longer terms benefits such as increasing the longevity of the cow because her udder is under less strain.

Around then we also started splitting the herd with only the lower yielders allowed to graze through the summer. The public might be keen on the idea of cows grazing with the summer sun on their backs but too often the reality is cows huddled at the back of hedges trying to keep out the rain. And if the cow isn’t eating or lying cudding, then she’s not going to be making milk.

There is also the advantage that we are optimising grass use. In our experience you either: kept cows tight when grazing to help grass regeneration in which case you were restricting intakes; or you made sure there was plenty of grass in front of the cows in which case more was left behind.

In general, improvements in how we handle grass to make silage have been a key part in limiting any increase in feed rate. We take our first cut much earlier now and aim to cut every 4-5 weeks where previously we’d been looking at only three cuts across the season this means that the silage has a better energy density. Also switching to the dribble bar for slurry back in 2013 really helped grass regrowth between cuts as the sunlight could get to most of the leaves.

Another important area has been managing cows at the transition period around calving. Eight years ago we switched to a full Dietary Cation-Anion Difference (DCAD) diet. The transition cows also get methionine and choline added to their diet and the older ones get a Kexxtone bolus to help optimise rumen function.

Overall I don’t think there are any quick fixes when it comes to removing the barriers that restrict the cows ability to increase production. Rather it’s all about finding those marginal gains in much the same way that the British Cycling team are credited with doing.