WELL over 250 farmers attended a number of dairy seminars last month with venues throughout Devon and Cornwall, hosted by animal feed compounders Harpers Home Mix Ltd, and with a theme of 'The Economics of Feeding Cows at Grass''.

The audience heard an upbeat introduction from sales director Glen Johns, who stated that although European liquid milk consumption had dropped slightly, world wide consumption had risen by 11.6% since 2003 and was likely to continue as both Indian and Chinese diets were becoming more "westernised".

"It does not stop at milk,'' he continued, "with the world population predicted to increase by 50% by 2050, the demand on farmers to produce extra food for these developing countries will be quite immense, and although it is seemingly quite tough out there at the moment, all agricultural sectors will grow and opportunities will arise,'' he said.

Pete Davis, Harpers new ruminant nutritionist then kicked off by highlighting the importance of grass and ultimately, it's management. He also fully endorsed the claim that there are real opportunities out there, now, to make profit. How? Quite simply - keep it simple! Make your management easier and ensure that there are three active members within your management team - The farmer (you!), the nutritionist and the vet. Between the three of you, a significant number of potential problems can be highlighted and virtually eliminated before they even arise.

Forage management starts with much better utilisation of slurry and with current fertiliser prices as they are, this extremely valuable commodity must be used much more efficiently than it has thus far in order for farmers to reap the financial benefits. With 1,000 gallons of undiluted slurry offering a potential 30 units of N', 10 units of P' and 50 units of K', it is quite easy to calculate its true value, but unfortunately, and more often than not, slurry is applied in a somewhat haphazard way and valuable nutrients are lost to the air or leached off the land before being fully incorporated into the soil.

Grassland management really is the key to profitability and farmers must try and ensure that they utilize their grazing to it's maximum. Even with nitrogen costing £280 per tonne, there will be a return of 12:1 in terms of yield from grass. Quality is absolutely crucial and farmers were encouraged to keep their spring grass fresh and to control it with a topper if necessary, should it start to get ahead of the cows. There is always the temptation to over-estimate the value of spring grass, especially on older swards and farmers were told not to expect more than 12 litres per day. Dry matter intakes are always enhanced by good, young, fresh and sugary grass and cows can quite realistically consume 15 kgs of 20% dry matter which would equate to 75 kgs of fresh weight.

If, and on the other hand, these same cows were turned into a field of much poorer grass where the dry matters could quite easily be as low as 15% (this factor also applies to good quality grazing on a wet day), those cows would have to consume over a third more fresh weight in order to achieve the same 15 kgs of dry matter - and that, the audience was told, was almost impossible.

A dairy cow just could not eat 100 kgs of fresh grass plus concentrate, without cow health, fertility and performance being compromised. Grazing swards must contain a high percentage of ryegrass in order to maximise dry matter intakes and so when farmers are re-seeding, they are strongly advised to go for specialist mixtures which are formulated to produce the maximum amount of forage for a specific purpose. As an example, Pete Davis said that where silage was taken from a long term permanent pasture type, the feed values would be extremely variable because the composition of the sward was so variable. If, however, a farmer was using a mixture that had been specifically formulated for cutting and had grasses with a close range of heading dates, then the feed values would be more likely to be uniform throughout the clamp and make the job of forage management much easier and much more meaningful. Even assuming that top quality grasses are ensiled with appropriate figures appearing on the all important Forage Analysis Sheets, it can still go wrong as poor clamp management will inevitably lead to poor quality silage, which, in turn will result in reduced dry matter intakes, reduced yields and, most importantly, reduced profits.

Pete Davis said that the role of the compounder begins by encouraging all farmers, be it beef, dairy or sheep, to grow as much top quality home grown forage as possible and once ensiled, it then becomes Harpers responsibility to begin the process of establishing the feed that best complements what is actually in the clamps. The better the quality in the clamp, the less they have to rely on the compounder and the less that they have to pay him. "If we can make a farmer more profitable by both reducing and optimising the performance of bought in feeds, then that, in my opinion,'' he said, "would be a job well done!'' For the dairyman, maximising milk from forage is the number one goal, with Harpers own dairy costings showing up some quite interesting results.

Average yields from all their costed herds is 7,300 litres with 2,500 litres (34%) coming from forage. Compare this against the average for the top 10% of their costed herds which is currently giving 8,800 litres, but the milk from forage figure is 4,000 litres - 45% - thus dispelling the theory that milk from the highest yielding herds must be coming "from the bag''.

The top yielding herds are getting the best milk from forage figures!

There are a significant number of farmers who do not use any form of costings at all. Unfortunately, that means that there could be a reasonable proportion of them who will be losing money and may not be aware of it. Some may just be relying on their land values to carry them through, whilst others maybe paying themselves just a pittance for mere survival! There would also be a proportion, small perhaps but nevertheless significant, who never re-seed and rely on worn out permanent pasture and who are potentially unaware of individual cow yields but where winter feed purchases tend to be on-going. On these units there would be precious little challenging of the feed compounder toward better profitability and feedback. I do also accept however, that there are many out there that don't cost their herd, but are well aware of their profitability.

Pete Davis then went on to talk at length about cow condition and how important the dry period was and the diet fed during that time. Dry matter intake reduces just prior to calving from about 13.5 kgs down to 8kgs and during this time there is a massive stress period. In order to help reduce this, more dry cow housing space is advised with at least 12 square metres per cow, ample feed space and the diet available 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Good dry cow management is essential toward ease of calving and early lactation with elimination of stress and correct body scores being paramount for success. If the cows are kept stress free, then the farmer is stress free!

Harpers Home Mix have maintained from day one that they always put the cow first and make no apologies whatsoever for continuing with this philosophy. All of their diets are formulated for individual farms, so farmers are safe in the knowledge that all their bought in feeds are fully complementing what is in the clamp or in the field.

The Harpers Mill is totally unique in Europe as it is the only one that gives large particle sizes within each cube, which means that rumen degradation is slower and therefore optimises ingredients much more efficiently - clearly highlighting their determination to put the cow first!

The message was quite clear. Grow better grass, pay attention to detail and keep your system simple. That way, you will be well on the road toward improved profitability - and that, really, is what it's all about - isn't it?