Reducing milking frequency to once a day can cut the workload for dairy farmers but a new report commissioned in Wales by Farming Connect has shown that for some businesses profitability will take a hit if they switch from a twice-a-day system.

Clyngwyn, one of Farming Connect’s network of ‘Our Farms’, near Clynderwen, Pembrokeshire, currently has a morning and afternoon milking pattern for the spring calving herd.

The mixed herd of Swedish Reds, Norwegian Reds and Montbeliards produces an annual milk yield average of just under 6,000 litres a cow at 4.5% butterfat and 3.4% protein, with milk sold to First Milk.

The system, run by Jeff and Sarah Wheeler, was reviewed by Sean Chubb, business development consultant at LIC as part of their Farming Connect project work, to see if the economics of reducing milking frequency to once a day could stack up in a 150-cow herd, budgeting for 1.4 tonne of concentrates per cow per year.

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Mr Chubb didn’t restrict that review to one model but applied the Wheelers’ figures to four:

• Full season once a day milking

• Half season once a day milking

• Three weeks once a day at the beginning of lactation

• Once a day milking at the beginning and end of lactation

This exercise concluded that, at the existing stocking rate and production level and factoring in cost of production, the Wheelers’ twice a day system was the most profitable at their current milk price.

“If these prices move in a favourable way, then this system will remain the most profitable but if they go in an unfavourable way then the other systems could become more profitable,’’ said Mr Chubb.

For each of the once-a-day systems he modelled, the level of profitability shifted.

Milking a full season once a day would result in a labour saving of 1,277.5 hours but revenue would decrease by 30% while costs would only fall by 5%.

Adopting once a day milking for up to half of the season, from September to the end of February, would cut milking times by 630 hours. Milk revenue would drop by 10% and input costs by 2%.

If the Wheelers only scaled back to once a day for three weeks at the beginning of the lactation and for another nine weeks at the end, revenue would be cut by 7% and costs by 1%, including 294 hours in labour savings.

The shortest intervention – once a day milking for three weeks at the beginning of the main part of the calving period with a saving of 73.5 hours in labour – would, at 1.5%, result in the smallest decrease in their revenue with very little movement in total expenses.

But profit would still be less compared to twice-a-day milking, Mr Chubb calculated.

Each of the different applications of once-a-day milking scrutinised has its own positive and negative points, he added, depending on what a farmer wants to achieve, including ‘work-life balance’.

Although none of the once-a-day systems would make the Wheelers as much money as twice daily milking, they are profitable – and would remain so even at a lower milk prices, said Mr Chubb.

“As the length of once a day milking increases the profitability decreases but the profit per hours milked increases,’’ he pointed out.

“Which application of once a day milking is best for you comes down to what you are wanting to get out of once a day milking.’’

Once-a-day milking is an option the Wheelers had contemplated as a means of reducing their workload.

“It is something that had been in the back of our minds for a while because it is just Jeff and I and his parents on the farm. We had asked ourselves if there was anything we could do differently to reduce the workload,’’ Mrs Wheeler explained.

It had been a very useful exercise, to examine the financial aspect of the different options as a Farming Connect project, and it had helped to inform the decision in the short term, she said.

“I can’t see us going completely that way, everyone tells us our cows are too good for milking just once a day, and the financial hit from doing that would be more than I would have expected.

“It’s not that we are ruling it out completely as something we might do in the future, but perhaps just in the last couple of months before drying off because we would lose out too much from going completely once a day.’’

There would be no option to increase cow numbers for that loss of production because of stocking rates under the Control of Agricultural Pollution regulations.

“We can’t keep any more cows than we have now, our sheds are at maximum capacity and we don’t have the land required for the new stocking rate,’’ Mrs Wheeler added.

According to the report, the greatest lever the Wheelers have for offsetting loss in milk production if they were to introduce once-a-day milking is to create a tighter calving block, reducing it to 10-12 weeks; the herd currently calves from 20 March with a few of the later calving cows extending the block to 15 September.

But this would be influenced by what their milk buyer would permit, Mr Chubb suggested.

A tighter calving pattern would mean lower use of concentrates, electricity and building repairs and, with consequential lower milk production at transition, less veterinary and medicine costs too.