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Ecology, environment and production costs are the key focus on Somerset dairy farm

Published: 26 May 2016

Long-term AMC customers, Andrew and Emma Maltby, have used a series of AMC loans to build and expand their Somerset dairy farm. Andrew's ongoing focus is to maintain a tight control on production costs and to maximise the farm's environmental and ecological earning potential.

Andrew and Emma Maltby farm 700 acres at Aller Court near Langport on the Somerset Levels. With a proportion of the farm's grazing land susceptible to regular winter flooding, the 230 cow dairy herd is managed on an extensive, grass-based system. 150 acres of cereal crops are also grown, with approximately half sold via a buy-back agreement to the feed mill in Crediton and the rest used for the herd's own consumption.

Seven years ago the Maltbys moved away from using pure Holstein genetics in favour of cross-breeding with Jersey, Guernsey, Fleckvieh and Montbeliarde sires: to reduce lameness, improve cow longevity, maximise constituent payments from the farm's traditional farmhouse cheese contract and improve feed conversion efficiencies.

It all comes down to maximising the opportunities presented to us – that is, after all, the essence of running any commercial business.

Andrew Maltby Aller Court, Somerset

Six years ago the herd was badly affected by Johne's disease, which caused cow numbers to slump to 180. "Since then we've been able to rebuild the herd by purchasing and importing cows from the Continent," Andrew Maltby explains. "We've been AMC customers for many years, using long-term loans to purchase land and to build an on-site farm worker's cottage. When we spoke to AMC about purchasing a group of replacement cows they once again agreed to make the necessary funds available.

Somerset dairy farmers Emma and Andrew Maltby, with their sons, Charlie (left) and George (right), both of whom hope to make a career in UK agriculture.

"We're now back at our maximum stocking density and are focusing on producing milk as cost effectively as possible. Our cross-breeding strategy has served us well: we are still producing 6,800 litres per cow, but no longer have any of the worries or costs related to chasing outright yields and associated health problems.

"For us, it is more important to keep costs under control and we are constantly benchmarking and re-assessing our input costs. We pay a lot of attention to our feed input costs and are currently using an average of 0.3kg of cake per litre of milk produced. We're happy with that figure, but are always looking for ways to improve. If we can save 1kg of feed per cow per day without having a detrimental effect on milk yield or composition, we can save as much as £18,000 per year. In today's dairy climate that's a huge saving."

In addition to managing the farm's milk production costs, Andrew's other key focus is to maximise the farm's environmental and ecological opportunities.

"Our location on the Somerset Levels means it is ineffective to manage the dairy herd on an intensive system," Andrew explains. "But it does open other opportunities, not least the ability to receive financial rewards from various archaeological, environmental and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes."

"It all comes down to maximising the opportunities presented to us – that is, after all, the essence of running any commercial business." Andrew Maltby, Aller Court, Somerset.

As well as being involved in projects to protect lapwings and re-introduce Great Cranes to the Somerset Levels, the Maltbys are also attempting to diversify their farm business by installing a 55-acre, 17 megawatt solar photovoltaic (PV) park.

"We're currently earning the equivalent of approximately two pence per litre from the various environmental schemes that we work hard to comply with, but have also taken 55 acres out of arable production in the hope that we can earn an extra income from solar energy. We've been working with British Solar Renewables to seek planning permission for the land to be used for green electricity production.

The herd at Aller Court has been cross bred to improve cow health and longevity, maximise milk constituents and improve feed conversion efficiencies.

"We intend to graze sheep under the panels in order to keep the land in food production, but we've met some strong opposition from local residents. The irony is, if the solar panels are installed, the land will be able to support a wider variety of wildlife as we will no longer be ploughing the land each year for the next arable crop. We have also agreed to enhance the whole farm's ecological value by putting an additional three acres of land to seed banks for wild birds and feeding scrapes for lapwings.

"If we don't get planning permission for the solar panels, we'll revert to growing more of our own cereals. It'll be a shame as the land is ideally suited to solar energy production, and it would actually enhance the farm's ecological diversity. The income from the solar panels would also help the farm to cope with rising input costs and falling milk prices. It all comes down to maximising the opportunities presented to us – that is, after all, the essence of running any commercial business."

The farm's propensity to flooding will hopefully be less problematic when work to improve the drainage capacity of the King's Sedgemoor Drain and River Sowy is completed – both waterways are being dredged and widened to prevent a recurrence of the 2014 Somerset flood crisis. Once completed, the drainage improvements will give the Maltbys a more certain and reliable grazing period and help to reduce the vagaries of extreme weather events.

"That will give us more control of our production costs, and gives us the confidence to believe that, despite the current milk price turmoil, there is a strong future for us in UK dairy farming. Working with companies such as AMC, who clearly understand the UK dairy sector, also gives us confidence, especially as they don't charge an annual arrangement fee. It's another example of how we are working to keep our outgoings to the bare minimum."

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