DAIRY farmers have been told they need to understand their cows better, so they can improve profits by cutting feed costs rather than simply lobbying for better payments.
The message came from an expert on animal nutrition, David Beever, speaking at the NFU's northern dairy conference at Coniston Cold, near Skipton, on Tuesday.
The theme of the conference was Balancing The Supply Chain and the opening speaker, NFU dairy board chairman Mansel Raymond, spoke fiercely about the "market failure" which had left British farmers getting nearly 2p a litre less for liquid milk than the rest of Europe, on average – less than the cost of production and less than the equivalent prices being paid for milk powder and cheese, he said.
He said: "We are not getting a fair deal and we are justifiably angry. I am utterly dismayed by whispers in the industry that we may see downward price movement early next year. Anything other than an urgent price increase will not be tolerated. Milk buyers should take this as a warning that we will not stand back. We will take whatever responsible actions are required to make sure farmers' voices are heard."
Following him to the rostrum, Professor Beever, who gave up a distinguished academic career to work for the feed-mixers company Keenan, said: "I applaud what you said. But I have been hearing it for 20 years.
"It is all unfair. But an industry that is going to be efficient has to look not only at prices but at what is happening at home.
"There are a lot of inefficient dairy businesses out there and I have been staggered, in the six years since I came out of university, at how badly some herds are doing and how badly some are being advised."
Prof Beever said giving cows more and more concentrated feeds to improve their output had seemed to work in the USA when feed was cheap and had been copied widely. But it was wrong for the animals and expensive for the farmer. They had to look at feed conversion efficiency (FCE), like pig and poultry farmers did. And to improve FCE, in terms of litres of milk per kilogramme of dry matter in feed, they had to understand how cows' rumens (digestive systems) worked.
Almost everyone was chopping silage too fine, so it sat in a cow's system "like compost". A ruminant's four stomachs were designed to process a much more open and fibrous mix.
Prof Beever summed up: "When cows are chewing cud, they are making you money."
He said the average farmer could save more than 1.5p a litre on feed costs by getting more from the same spending on inputs. In the UK, the average cost of feed per litre of milk was 12.6p but the best was 10.88p. It was the same in Europe as a whole. But best practice was more common elsewhere. Of the 10 best herds in Europe for FCE, four were in Sweden, three in Denmark, two in the UK and one in France.
He summed up: "If Mansel can get you 1.7p a litre and I can give you 1.5p, maybe we are getting somewhere."
Conference compere Russell Bowman thanked him for "one of the most interesting and illuminating talks on feeding cattle I have heard".
David Shaw of Elvington, near York, chairman of the NFU's north east dairy board, proposed thanks for all the speakers and told Prof Beever: "You are right. We can improve our efficiency. But we do need a profit from the other end as well."
Prof Beever, who was brought up on a farm near Sheffield and went to Penistone Grammar School, was honoured for his life's work by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers last year. He spent 20 years with the Grassland Research Institute and then 12 running the Centre for Dairy Research at Reading University.