Despite soaring feed costs, increased milk from forage has bolstered end margins for many, to include the bottom 25% of dairy producers.

Add to that improved health and fertility, stable milk prices and reduced antibiotic use and the latest Kingshay Dairy Costings Focus report makes for interesting reading.

Kingshay which is part of a network of 250 animal health advisors within VetPartners, has been conducting dairy costings for the past 20 years and revealed record high average yields and milk solids over the past 12 months. The figures, based on 1250 dairy herds throughout GB of which in excess of 200 are in Scotland, showed average milk yields of 8512 litres per cow and 638kg/cow, respectively, across all production systems.

Impressively, milk yields from forage increased from 2463 to 2842litres as a result of improved growing seasons. This compares to a low of 2111litres, in 2013, and 2871 in 2005. Yields from grazing were also up 3% to 33% this year.

However, concentrate use has steadily increased, from 1808kg/cow in 2001 to 2667kg/cow this year – although on a per litre basis it has remained steady since the late noughties, at about 0.3kg/litre, due to

higher yields.

However, with higher input costs margins have taken a hit, particularly given the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on milk prices last year. On average, the margin over purchased feed eased back from 20.44p/litre or £1,720/cow last year to 20.16p/litre and £1,716/cow this year (year ending March 2021).

When comparing the different production systems, organic producers again topped the leader board in terms of margin over purchased feed (MOPF), both on a per litre and per cow basis. While no one system is right for all, the figures provide producers an opportunity to benchmark against similar farms and identify potential areas for improvement.

“Encouragingly, the bottom quartile of producers have managed to really narrow the gap on the top 25% across every type of system, showing that attention to detail and incremental gains remain key to success,” says Mrs Rowland, senior farm services manager at Kingshay.

Kingshay also produced figures for cross-breed herds for the first time, as well as Channel Island and organic, all of which are making tremendous use of forage.

“Over all herds, yields from forage have consistently increased over the past three years, although concentrate usage has also risen across the board to support higher yields,” she explains.

However, there remains a big difference in MOPF between those who make the best use of forage and those who don’t – with the top quartile averaging £1884/cow versus the bottom quartile at £1585/cow.

“With soaring feed prices that effect will likely become even more pronounced this year. So regardless of whether you have a more intensive housed system or an extensive spring-calving herd, it’s clearly worth investing in better forage and grassland management to keep those feed costs under control.”

Backing up these statements she added that feed prices have soared by 36% over the past decade, while milk prices have gained just 14%.

On a more positive note, the main health incidences recorded in Kingshay Health Manager – from milk fever to difficult calvings – have all dropped, year-on-year. Mastitis cases are down from 36 cases per 100 cows last year to 32 this year, while lameness has been reduced from 43 cases per 100 cows in 2017 to 36 this year, as a result of increased culling, mobility scoring, routine foot trimming and footbathing.

Fertility has improved, too; despite an unchanged calving interval of 397 days. Instead the past year has seen fewer services per conception and culling for infertility fell from 7.9% to 6.7%, year-on-year. Consequently, infertility costs dropped by 13%, to £176/cow.

As a result of this improved herd health, farmers have been able to slash antibiotic use, from 21.6mg/kg PCU in 2018 to 16.1mg/kg PCU this year. This year 77% of herds were below the RUMA target of 21mg/kg too, with the amount of critically important antibiotics used down from 1.5mg/kg PCU in 2018 to 0.39mg/kg PCU now. “This is a fantastic result and shows the efforts which vets and producers have made to protect these important antimicrobials for human medicine,” added Mrs Rowland,