Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Discussion groups: catalyst for change

By Catherine Smith


Farm business discussion groups are a hugely powerful catalyst and driving force for change which enable members to share learning and best practice, benchmark their performance data and explore new innovations with other like-minded businesses.

Over the last four and a half years I have had the pleasure of facilitating a range of farmer-led discussion groups in Wales through Farming Connect.

The project has received funding through the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government. Farming Connect provides support which is transforming the business prospects of thousands of farmers and foresters. Our support is wide-ranging and includes helping to increase efficiency, keeping up to date to with the latest technology, as well as benchmarking performance and sharing best practice with other farmers, industry experts and academics.

The Monmouthshire dairy discussion group was formed in October 2014. Members were initially recruited for having the common aim and objective of trying to improve herd fertility performance. Poor dairy fertility is the most common inefficiency on dairy units and has a direct impact on product costs, milk production, culling rate and young stock numbers. The group membership herd sizes range from 100 milking cows to over 700 milking cows with annual yields of between 8500 – 12300 l/cow. All businesses had a milk record. Milk recording data was the foundation for the initial fertility benchmarking work completed within the group.

The first group meetings identified and quantified the fertility parameters of member farms and measured the financial impact of that performance. Key drivers to facilitate change for each farm were then discussed and agreed with the overall objective being to work towards targeted improvements. A regular programme of knowledge transfer meetings were scheduled to support the group farms in their objectives and to monitor progress.

The five fertility KPIs that were constantly monitored within the group, along with many other statistics were:

  • Calving interval (days)
  • Inter-service interval (ratio)
  • Cows served before 65 days (as % of herd)
  • Calving intervals greater than 480 days (as % of herd)
  • Culling rates (as % of herd)

To date, over the lifetime of the project, the indicative saving as quantified by reduced calving interval achieved across the group is around £203,600, which equates to £94/cow.

Fertility benchmarking was an excellent foundation for the group to build upon and as the trust and dynamics within the group membership naturally developed, so did the ambition to widen its remit. Crucially this transformation was driven by the membership and my role as the group’s facilitator was to manage that change and support its successful development to meet the members evolving business needs and associated industry challenges. The group’s wider focus has included all important benchmarking principles and data sharing amongst members.
Additional focus areas have included:

  • Cost of production benchmarking
  • Antibiotic usage and AMR
  • Youngstock health and heifer replacements
  • Johnes management
  • Soil health and nutrient management planning
  • Genomics testing
  • Lameness

Fertility still remains a key focus for the group and fertility updates are now conducted annually.

Group activities, where possible, have been supported and augmented by the wider suite of Farming Connect services, including clinics, the advisory service and skills funding.
An added benefit of the discussion group is that it has become a trusted forum where members can share day-to-day problems, challenges and concerns with their peers which plays a significant role in enhancing the wellbeing of members. This is hugely powerful and cannot be underestimated in its importance as the farming industry faces the challenges of a changing world.

Ross Edwards, New Dairy Farm: member of the Monmouthshire dairy discussion group.