What if I increased cow numbers, employed a herdsman, or made better silage? If I could increase yields, how would profit be affected? Questions like these can be asked, tested and answered on a three day workshop run by DairyCo.
Most dairy businesses are facing decisions about their future. Fred Harvey wanted to focus on the likely impact of better forage management and in particular higher quality silage for his 120 cow herd at Ryan Park, Lanivet near Bodmin when he went to a DairyCo "What if?" workshop last year.
The software used at the workshops examines core costs per cow and allows producers to build scenarios to help them make clearer plans for their business, says DairyCo product manager Kate Cross.
"The course really highlighted the value of quality forage feeds to our business. It makes you think differently about your set up and allows you to look at alternative scenarios with their knock-on effects but without the risk of having a go," says Mr Harvey, who farms in partnership with his father, also Fred.
As a result of their discoveries on the course, they set a target ME of 11 for grass silage, invested £3,800 in a grass turner and, thanks to better silage additive and better weather than in past seasons, they have come very close to that target.
"We normally catch some rain once we have cut the silage but this time it was just showers rather than downpours. We use contractors but having the turner gave us a little more control and flexibility to make the silage more palatable.
"We look forward to seeing the results of feeding this season's 10.8ME silage against the 10.1 we had last year. The projected improvement is for a 0.5kg/litre drop in concentrate feed to 0.32kg/litre through the year. This should push margins up and we should also get a boost in milk production as the improved palatability will lift silage intake.
"We are doing 2,000litres from forage at the moment but we should be able to do 3,000litres. We have also tried to extend the season, getting cows out a bit earlier, fertiliser on a bit sooner and pushing grazing further into the autumn. The cows are doing 8,000litres now but we should be able to get an extra 600 to1,000litres/cow going through the winter as a rolling average."
In targeting better quality forage, some ground was reseeded with Italian ryegrass after maize and this year's maize also went into fresh ground. The new ley has already provided four cuts of silage and some late grass for buffer feeding.
"The workshop is fairly in depth, the secret is to have good information in the first place. My DairyCo extension officer helped me to prepare the figures and pull it all together, it took about two hours working together to do this. If you don't have good computer records it would take considerably longer.
"You need to go into the workshop with an open mind. The best thing about it was the excellent consultants and the quality of discussion. It was an excellent group of farmers prepared to be open about their figures and that made all the difference. You don't have to reveal your figures to the group but it helps.
The computer programs used in the workshops develop an appreciation of the relationship between production systems, costs structures and profit outcomes says Kate Cross.
"In our group there were people with very set ideas about where their business was going. But during the course they changed their ideas about how they were doing things and where they were going. "What If" has the power to do that."
Mr Harvey's place on the workshop was sponsored by Clydesdale Bank, and there is the potential for farmers attending to be sponsored by their feed merchant, milk buyer or accountant. Finding time to get away was the hardest part, says Mr Harvey, but well worth it.