Improve performance with farm benchmarking

Family farms make up around 80% of Britain’s agricultural landscape, however a lack of planning for the future may be putting these important businesses at risk. To demonstrate our support and commitment to family farms across the UK, Volac is proud to co-sponsor Farmers Guardian’s ‘Year of the Family Farm’ initiative. In the latest part of the series we take a look at farm benchmarking, a hugely powerful tool for the family farm.


Year of the family farm series

Year of the Family Farm has been running throughout 2017 and as part of the initiative a Year of the Family Farm series has been launched which aims to address the issues facing family farms and identify opportunities which will help them become fit for the future.

The latest part of this series focuses on farm benchmarking which can be a hugely powerful tool in cutting costs and improving performance. However in reality, the number of farms undertaking benchmarking is likely to be nowhere near as high as it should be. So how do you carry out effective farm benchmarking and who do you compare your performance with?

Why is benchmarking so important for family farms?

Farm benchmarking is focused on a series of marginal gains to improve performance, rather than wholesale change and can be particularly beneficial to family farms who are more likely to prefer to cut costs than to invest capital to improve their operation. While it can show simple savings to be implemented immediately, the information can influence a long-term strategy, leading to a gradual evolution in the farm’s structure and operation.

Anything which can be measured can be scrutinised, from yields, labour and fertiliser costs to feed conversion, age at first calving and daily liveweight gains.  There is nothing new about the process, but technology has now made it easier to capture and compare data quickly and easily.

Pressure on farm incomes and an acceptance that support payments are likely to reduce raises the importance of farms sense-checking their performance against other farms. Strutt and Parker partner Rob Wilkinson says more farms need to do it.

 I suspect there is an element of benchmarking which goes on in most farm businesses, but a lot of it will be off the top of the head. “We have tried to encourage it for years and interest is born out of farming without Basic Payments. Farmers need to look at how they are going to put money back into their bottom line. “But the amount of people physically sitting down and filling out data is probably very few.

How do you start farm benchmarking?

To get started with farm benchmarking, follow these 5 steps:

  1. To begin with, start with the set of accounts
  2. Look at Farm Business Survey’s website and enter the data
  3. Take advice from a further source, such as a consultant or analyst
  4. Act practically on it by using an independent source who can analyse it and suggest the next steps
  5. Join and participate in a discussion group – national or regional

Farm benchmarking in action

The more people you can measure yourself against the better, says Wiltshire dairy farmer James Wright.

Benchmarking on Wiltshire dairy farmer James Wright’s family farm begins as soon as the calves are born. Mr Wright farms a herd of 370 pedigree Holstein cows in the North Wessex Downs and starts by measuring a newborn calf around the middle with a weighband.

He says: “Every calf is born at different weights and we are aiming to get it to double its birth weight by the time it is weaned.” Mr Wright also utilises technology, such as a Volac automatic feeder for his calves, which he says allows different staff members to manage calves, as the machine keeps track of what each individual calf requires.

The farm then collects data on the cow’s fertility, health and yields, which Mr Wright measures against other farms and his own previous performances. He says keeping track of a cow’s fertility is paramount. “If she is only bulling for one hour in the middle of the night, we would probably miss the heat, so cows wear pedometers. “These measure the cow’s movement, as when a cow is in heat she will move around more.

It means we have eyes and ears on the cows 24/7, with the aim to get them back in calf quicker. “We are aiming for an 80 per cent plus survival rate from birth to second calving.” Mr Wright benchmarks across three different groups: nationally through his Sainsbury’s Muller contract; locally through his vets, Drove vets; and against a group made up of a ‘very diverse group of farms’, including low input and high input systems.

He says: “We can look at different aspects and we can see which way would suit the farm.” Mr Wright says due to benchmarking carried out on-farm, he is always adjusting the way it works, which has helped improve the farm’s performance.

“The more people we can benchmark against the better.” He denies benchmarking is simply a ‘box-ticking exercise’ and encourages those who might be cautious about sharing data to do it. He says there is a bonus to be made from benchmarking and reaching targets set by buyers.

There is a bonus to be made. It is a motivator for staff and it will lead to being more profitable. “In terms of milk contracts, it is about making sure you get into their top band.

Mr Wright encourages farmers who are cautious about sharing data to look into joining benchmarking groups, as results are confidential between those who present at meetings.

Find out more about farm benchmarking here or to catch up on the full Year of the Family Farm series visit FG Insight.

Newcastle and RDSVS student win Farm Health Management Awards 2017

We are pleased to announce that Elizabeth Johnson, a BSc Animal Science student from Newcastle University and Ellen Smith, studying at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (RDSVS), Edinburgh have been crowned as the winners of this year’s RABDF Farm Health Management Awards.


Volac is extremely proud to sponsor this award which brings a focus to the importance of taking a holistic approach to best practice in livestock management. Each of the winners was presented with a £500 cash prize from us at Gold Cup Open Day in Dorset on Wednesday 28th June.


Alongside the two winners, certificates were also presented to two short listed finalists: Louise Swanston studying BSC Animal Science at Aberystwyth University and Olivia Dower-Tylee, a Veterinary Medicine and Surgery student at RDSVS, Edinburgh.

The annual competition, now in its tenth year, is open to agricultural and veterinary students from any course year including postgraduate students. Applicants are required to write a 1,500 word essay on proactive farm health management and the benefits it brings to animal health and welfare and farm profitability.

The essays were judged by a panel featuring RABDF Council member and Gelli Aur College farm manager, John Owen; veterinary surgeon Oli Hodgkinson, and John Summer, dairy consultant and award chairman.

Students had to demonstrate an understanding of disease costs and its financial impact on business performance together with the impact of good nutrition, consider the environmental effects of disease and its likely impact on meat and milk quality, comment on the importance of collaboration between farm staff, vets and other advisors in formulating health management plans and consider the differences among the various livestock sectors and how one can learn from another.

With an extremely high standard of entries, we would like to offer our congratulations to this year’s winners and our continued support for this important award.

“We are pleased to support agricultural and veterinary students in this award which brings a focus to the importance of taking a holistic approach to best practice in livestock management. We believe that their heightened awareness towards a proactive approach to farm health management covering all aspects, from housing and nutrition to financial impact, will be of huge benefit in their future careers.” said John Reynolds.

More information about the award is available here.

Hygiene: Combating common calf diseases

We could all learn a lot from the pig and poultry sectors where routine cleaning and disinfection is crucial. Bacteria and viruses are present in large numbers on all farms, and the diseases they and other germs cause are common and costly.

FFG-Environment-Hygiene-Clean pens

This week’s blog looks at pens, their design together with cleaning and disinfection. We’ll also investigate coccidiosis, one of the three most common calf diseases. Next week pneumonia and scour will come under the microscope.

Pens and Buildings

• Try to design calf pens so that, as a minimum, they can be emptied and cleaned prior to the new arrivals.
• Germs such as bacteria and viruses will accumulate in calf pens.
• Very few units have the facilities to allow all in, all out systems; they’re the ideal.

Pen design

1. Choose materials for calf pens which are easily cleaned and disinfected, for example metal or plastic.
2. The flooring surface should have no cracks or pits that are hard to clean.
3. Make sure you will be able to both empty and clean the drinkers and feeders between batches.

Cleaning and disinfection

FFG-Environment-Hygiene-How should I clean my pens

1. Remove all organic matter prior to cleaning and disinfection; after cleaning out the straw bedding, use a pressure washer or steam cleaner to remove the remainder.

Don’t forget, using a pressure washer in an occupied building can increase the disease risk for remaining calves. Try to remove the pen fixtures for cleaning in a separate airspace to the other calves.

2. Use a recommended disinfectant at the correct concentration on all surfaces that calves can touch. Where surfaces are cracked or damaged or porous and difficult to clean, apply a greater concentration of disinfectant to these areas.

3. Allow the pens to dry out prior to new arrivals.

Download our Farmers Guide to Housing for Young Calves

Coccidiosis: a very common problem with significant losses. Prevention is essential as treatment is too late.

Coccidiosis occurs anywhere from 12 to 21 days after ingestion of the Coccidia parasite. It causes significant gut damage, leading to scouring sometimes with blood, the calf will be seen straining and weight loss can be significant. Infected cattle go on to suffer impaired lifetime performance – reduced weight gain, treatment costs and longer time to either finishing or first calving. Severe outbreaks can result in death or chronic poor-doers which have an increased likelihood of suffering from pneumonia.


Coccidia is a common parasite present on most units. The disease occurs when young calves are exposed to high numbers.

Infection is passed from animal to animal through contact with infected faeces due to:

• Poor disinfection of pens between batches of calves
• Pen overcrowding
• Insufficient or poor quality bedding
• Grouping calves of different ages in the same pen
• Using pens on a continuous basis
• Allowing animals to contaminate feed or water with faeces, for example forage fed on the floor or concentrates being fed from low level troughs


1. If you think Coccidiosis is affecting your cattle – discuss control with your vet. Note, once you have identified an incident, damage to the gut has been done.
2. Reduce the risk of young calves coming into contact with infected faeces by
• Introducing all in, all out calf pens with good hygiene in between batches
• Preventing faecal contamination of forage and concentrate
• Isolating animals with severe clinical signs otherwise they will contaminate the environment

Wrap it pink this season for breast cancer research

Following the huge success of last year’s campaign, Volac is once again helping to raise money for Breast Cancer Now with our pink bale wrap campaign.

pink bale wrap

The campaign, which sees a donation made to the charity Breast Cancer Now from sales of each roll of a special pink version of the film used by farmers to wrap the bales, raised over £26,000 in 2016. This compared with over £10,000 raised from a similar campaign in 2015.

For every roll of the pink Topwrap film purchased, £3 will be donated to the charity Breast Cancer Now – with contributions toward the £3 coming from Volac, as well as Trioplast, the film’s manufacturer, and from the merchant supplying the roll.

Note: Topwrap RS1900 pink bale wrap has 1900m of film on a roll, as opposed to the standard green wrap sold which is 1500m. On average it is 7% cheaper than standard wrap and wraps 26.6% more bales.

The huge support received for this campaign last year, with pink bales appearing up and down the country, demonstrates the huge generosity of the farming community to support this fantastic cause.

Jackie Bradley, Product Manager for Volac said:

We have now had two very successful years running this campaign and raising money for a cause which is so close to our hearts. We are so pleased to be launching the campaign again this year and would love to see farmers and the farming community getting involved this year, to see if we can raise even more money for breast cancer research.

Pink Bale Wrap – Where to Buy

So think pink and support breast cancer research today

You can purchase pink bale wrap from your local merchant, while stocks last!

Merchant name Area
McCaskie Fm Supplies Scotland
East Coast Viners Aberdeenshire
Birsay Farmers Orkney Islands
Peacocks Of Thirsk North Yorkshire
SWLF Lancashire
JS Hubbuck Northumberland
Eden Farm Supplies Cumbria
Countrywide Nationwide
Robson Animal Health Northumberland/Co Durham
Coars NE Ltd North Yorkshire
Watermans of Tiverton North Devon
Cornwall Farmers Cornwall
WD Lewis Wales & Border Counties
Wynnstay Wales & Border Counties
RD Chester Herefordshire
Cox & Robinson Somerset/Northamptonshire
Mole Avon Devon/Cornwall
Gledhill Accessories West Anglia
RD Chesters Wales & Border Counties
Bodle Bros Sussex
KWG Ltd Kent
MG Simister Ltd Staffordshire/Derbyshire
Nichols Cow Avon
Corwen Farmers Wales & Border Counties
Hay & Brecon Farmers Wales & Border Counties
Aspatria Fmrs Northern England
BATA Northern England
Moorside Farm Supplies Northern England
Furness & South Northern England
Harbro Scotland
Tarff South West Scotland

Don’t forget to share your pink bale creations with us!

We’d love to see what you do with your pink bale wrap, so please get creative and share your photos and videos on our dedicated facebook page or @eocsyl_ using #pinkbales

Making the most of heifer growth rates

Feed conversion efficiency (FCE) is optimum in young animals – that’s a fact.


Heifer replacement FCE is highest in the first eight weeks of life after which it rapidly tails off – check out the graph.

In the first two weeks, 100g of feed will give approximately 50 – 60g of growth, after which it dramatically falls during the first 12 months of life, by when 100g feed will only give approximately 9g of growth.

Heifer feed efficiency

Heifer growth rates

* (Average daily gain) / (dry matter intake) x100

Source: IRTA

Feeding for growth has also proved to be cost effective according to research findings from the Institute of Research and Technology in Agrifood (IRTA). To achieve average age at first calving at 23 months and a body weight of 650kg, feeding a total six litres of milk per day to weaning at two months resulted in the lowest total rearing feed costs.

The data in the following table confirms that heifers fed four litres during the same period had some catching up to do later on when FCE is lower. In other words it is cheaper to put weight on heifers earlier.

Milk volume fed and the impact on total heifer rearing costs
(calving 23 months, 650kg body weight)

ffg graph

 Three reasons why FCE is the highest in early life

1. Milk is more digestible and nutritious than concentrate to a young calf

2. Calves fed concentrate utilise the ME that they consume less efficiently than the energy derived from milk or calf milk replacer. This is because at least some of the carbohydrate and protein in starter feed must be fermented in the rumen prior to being digested by the calf. As rumen activity increases, the amount of heat produced by the animal also increases which can be considered a loss as it cannot be utilised by the animal

3. Before puberty, growth is mainly bone and muscle, after which heifers gain more fat relative to bone and muscle, consequently they are less feed efficient.

FCE is not the only high point during pre weaning.

a. This phase is extremely important for the development of stomach, organ and mammary cells which together with metabolic programming are set on particular trajectories during this period of the calf’s life.

b. Improved early nutrition and growth rates are also correlated with increased plasma IGF-1, a hormone associated with higher growth rates which help to support increased disease resistance, improved immune response and in turn, reduced mortality.

Finally, two external factors determine FCE

Feed: ingredients can impact, as does quantity; refer back to the above table.
Environment: environmental stress can have an adverse impact on FCE.

To find out more download our Farmers Guide to Feed Conversion Efficiency.

Attention to detail: Part 2

Unlocking potential in the milk drinking phase

RLH Volac33977
This week we’re introducing four more fundamentals that will help you to unlock your heifer calves’ potential. Small management details like these can contribute towards their growth and the animals’ ability to hit required growth targets for 24 month calving.

Fact, if you increase your heifer calves’ daily liveweight gain from 500g to 800g in the milk
drinking phase, then they’ll have the potential to increase yield by an average 450 litres in the first lactation*.

1. Drinking angle

The strength of the oesophageal grove reflex is triggered by sucking, milk temperature and the position of the head. Consequently, calves need to drink from shoulder height to ensure neck extension, a weak groove reflex can cause milk to enter the rumen which can lead to problems such as bloat and scours. If you bucket feed, then raise the buckets to sit at least 30cm from the floor.



2. Consistency

Whatever you do – from the time of feeding to volume, concentration and
temperature of milk, dry feed and access to straw – be consistent. It’s vital to sustain intakes and growth.

3. Maintaining and cleaning feeding equipment

Check teats regularly – splits and wear and tear could lead to fast drinking and in turn, abomasal overflow and scour which could impact on growth. Check again to make sure the teats are set up right – the hole should be in a + position, not an x position, otherwise milk flow will be compromised.


4. Ambient temperature

Your calves have a thermal neutral zone of 15oC to 20oC, below which they will need more energy for maintenance and keeping warm. If this energy is not supplied, then growth rates and immunity could be compromised. Jackets are useful to keep calves warm from birth to three weeks, whilst ensuring they are bedded on clean, dry straw in a draught free environment.

Finally, measure and monitor: your heifer calves will need to gain 800g/day throughout
the rearing period if they are to double their birth weight by weaning and go on to reach 85
– 90% of mature weight by calving at 23 to 25 months, weigh your animals regularly to ensure they are hitting these targets

* Adapted from Soberon & Van Amburgh 2013

Attention to detail: Part 1

Unlocking potential in the milk drinking phase

RLH Volac33933-ed

Did you know that if you increase your heifer calves’ daily liveweight gain from 500g to 800g in the milk drinking phase, then they’ll have the potential to increase yield by an average 450 litres in first lactation?

Unlocking that potential is all about attention to management detail. Here are five fundamentals.

1. Mixing: Don’t get confused!

If you are following instructions to make up one litre of milk, then you need to add 125g of calf milk replacer powder (CMR) to 875ml of water equating to a 12.5% concentration. Adding 125g of the same CMR to one litre of water will lower the milk concentration to 11.1%. On a system feeding six litres per day, that would equate to 4.7kg less CMR over a 56 milk day period.

Download our Farmers Guide to Mixing Milk here.

2.Scoop calibration: CMR is a natural product so bulk density can vary between batches.

Calibrate your CMR scoop between batches by measuring a level scoop and weighing it. Take a scoop holding 375g, but you think it holds 450g and you’re aiming to feed 900g per day, then you could be underfeeding by a significant 150g per day.

3. Scoop cleaning: do you regularly clean and dry your measuring scoop?

A scoop with a build-up of CMR could significantly impact on the amount you are actually feeding each day. For example, 5g of dirt or hard powder in a 150g scoop could mean you’re feeding 30g per day less than you thought when feeding daily 900g per day measured using a 150g scoop.

4. Mixing temperature: aim for 40°C.

Scalding temperatures will denature milk proteins and reduce the quality of milk solids fed.

5. Feeding temperature: aim for 37°C.

Milk should be fed between 37-39°C to stimulate a strong oesophageal groove reflex, which helps prevent milk entering the rumen. The spillage of milk into the rumen will increase the risk of scours or bloat which could result in poor growth rates. If you are feeding a long line of calves, ask yourself – is one at the end getting the same temperature milk as the one at the start? Think of ways around it, for example using a milk shuttle to keep the milk warm.

Inaccurate measuring over a prolonged period can impact pre-wean growth and your calves weaning date.

Next week we’ll investigate some more fundamentals.

Source: Adapted from Soberon and Van Amburgh, 2013

Measure for success

Do you want increase herd yield?

If your heifers calve at 23 to 25 months then they will go on to yield more over their first five years of life than older calving animals simply because they achieve more lactations per unit of time, and have higher survival rates according to a Royal Veterinary College study of 500 animals.


To calve at 24 months, heifers must be in calf by 15 months. Since maiden heifers require on average 1.4 services per conception, first breeding must start at 13 to 14 months.

FFG-Nutrition-AFC 24 months benefitsActions to take:

1. Set growth rate targets: ensure rapid growth in early life – they will never catch up. Aim for up to 0.85kg per day during the first three months of life, and thereafter 0.7kg per day up to first breeding when they must be 55% to 60% of mature body weight.

2. Measure calf growth: if you don’t, you can’t monitor. Measure heifers at least twice during the rearing period: at birth, when it’s relatively easy to put a new born calf on a weigh scale, at weaning and again at a time when animals are being handled, for example vaccination or worming. Use weigh scales or a weigh band.

Click here for a practical demonstration on Using a Calf Weighband or  find out more in our Farmers Guide – Growth Measuring Tools.

3. Milk: feeding sufficient energy and protein to support target growth rates is essential. Do you know how much milk powder your calves receive each day? For 0.6kg per day target growth rate, calves should be fed at least five litres of a 12.5% solution of milk replacer, that’s 125g of powder made up to a litre, providing the calf with 625g milk powder per day (125g x five litres = 625g).

If you target higher growth rates of 0.8kg to 0.9kg per day, feed up to 900g of milk powder per day in two or preferably more feeds, for example feed six litres of milk mixed at a concentration of 150g of powder per litre.

4. Weaning management: calves must be provided with fresh palatable dry starter feed from day three, plus high quality straw, to ensure good rumen development prior to weaning. A calf should be eating 1kg to 1.5kg a day of concentrate and doubling its birthweight at weaning. Adopting a gradual weaning protocol by stepping down the amount of milk fed and number of milk feeds per day over the last three weeks will increase solid feed intake. This will result in a smoother transition onto solid feed reducing the risk of a growth check during this period.

5. Water: clean fresh water is essential from day three, even during the milk feeding period; milk is a feed not a drink.

Find out more about how to set a growth rate for your heifers and how to achieve 24 months AFC in our Farmers Guide – Growth Rate Targets and Farmers Guide – Age at First Calving.


Milk Feeding for calves

Defining Mixing rates IN ORDER to meet CALF growth targets and rumen development



Have you have set your heifers’ target age and weight at first calving?

Take a calf with a 40kg birth weight, if your target age at first calving is 24 months with an accompanying 560kg body weight, then she will have to gain 320kg over 395 days to ensure she hits optimum breeding weight at 13 months. That means she must achieve an average daily liveweight gain (DLG) of 0.8kg throughout the pre-service rearing period.

Simple? Straight forward? To support this level of growth, then you need to make sure that you are providing your heifer calves with sufficient nutrition, both energy and protein. Also remember that during the milk feeding phase the calf’s feed conversion efficiency is at its highest.

One of our latest trials focused on feeding calf milk replacer to Holstein heifers at a rate of 900g per day. These heifers initially weighed 38kg and achieved a DLG of 0.78kg to 11 weeks – that’s around the level of growth required to reach the target we set above.

Defining mixing rates

To feed 900g of milk replacer per calf per day it’s important to check and review mixing rates to ensure that the milk is fed at the correct volume and concentration. For example you can either mix

• six litres per day at 150g per litre OR
• seven litres at 125g per litre

To find out more about various mixing rate levels please download our Calf Products Guide. 

If you are targeting high growth rates, then this will also increase your heifers’ energy requirements.  Energy intakes can be improved in various ways but increasing the milk replacer’s oil content from 16% to 20% has a negligible effect compared with simply feeding more of the same. Check out the various combinations in the following table.

Daily energy intake and effect of feeding a low vs high oil milk replacer, or different volumes or concentrations
Energy supplied/calf/day (MJ) 16% oil,    22% protein 20% oil,     22% protein
4 litres – 12.5% 7.5 7.8
4 litres – 15% 11.2 11.7
5 litres – 12.5% 11.7 12.2

Remember your heifers have a large ability to grow during the milk feeding stage. Review their quantity of feed, as well as the quality.


Six steps to correct mixing

FFG-Nutrition - How to mix milk

1. Accurately weigh the milk powder on scales
2. Use 125g of powder to 875ml water to make up one litre of mixed milk with a 12.5% solids concentration; using a full litre of water will lead to a weaker (11.1%) milk concentration
3. Take half the water (below 45°C) and add all the powder
4. Whisk until smooth
5. Add the rest of the water and whisk again
6. Check temperature (between 37-39°C) and feed

Protect your Calves against the cold this winter using our Calf Jackets Protocol

In the winter months, when temperatures fall, extra attention is Needed to protect calves from the effects of the cold, especially calves under 3 weeks of age.

calf jackets

Calf jackets help to keep calves warm, dry and healthy, in the winter when temperatures fall below 15°C. In colder conditions more energy is used to keep warm and therefore less energy is used on growth, development and supporting a strong immune function. Calf jackets do not replace good husbandry – they are an added benefit.

FFG-Environment-Thermal neutral zone

In our new Calf Jackets protocol farmer guide, we highlight areas which are important to consider when purchasing calf jackets and tips on developing your own calf jacket protocol in order to get the full benefit from using jackets

Calf jackets should be used in combination with good management practises such as providing the calves with a draft free environment, deep dry bedding helping the calf to maintain growth and support a strong immune function, reducing the risk of setbacks in calf health during periods of cold weather.

There are some things to be aware of when purchasing calf jackets. The jackets themselves must:

  • Have breathable material
  • Be water resistant or waterproof
  • Be machine washable.
  • Have adjustable straps and fasteners with low maintenance.

Once you have decided to use calf jackets, it is very important to use them properly to maximise their potential. A calf jacket protocol should be set to inform everyone working on the farm what is expected and what should be done. Jamie Robertson has helped us create a new Farmer Guide calf jackets protocols which you can download here. 

The Feed for Growth programme focuses on 3 key areas – Health, Nutrition and Environment. We have a range of Farmer Guides available to help you, covering everything from dealing with common health problems to feeding and housing your calves.