Over the past 15 years, the team at Copys Green Farm has been taking steps to improve the sustainability of their operation, starting with making a proportion of the milk into cheese, then moving to a healthier herd of Brown Swiss cows, and using calf hutches to reduce calf disease. Since these initial steps, they have further developed their dairying operation through a number of initiative installations, developments and processes, spending over €20,000 in total.
Waste to farm-made energy
In 2011, they installed a combined heat and power (170kW electrical, 198kW thermal) anaerobic digester, which is fed with manures, lower quality silage (top and sides of clamp), whey etc. They export electricity to the grid (about 70%) but utilise as much of the heat as possible to eliminate fossil fuel heating. This fuels hot water in the parlour, cheesemaking heat, grain drying, four houses, the office, the workshop, and cow drinking water. Use of the digester reduces risk of diffuse pollution and damage to the nearby Stiffkey River, and the digestate produced by the AD plant is used as a high-quality consistent fertiliser.
Electrification to reduce fossil fuel use
Using an electric irrigation pump, digestate is pumped to the field by underground mains, avoiding road traffic. They also have three electric farm cars, one ride on mower, an electric Gator for herding cows, and an electric loader for scraping-out slurry.
Farm grown livestock feed
They grow as much livestock feed as possible on-farm, eliminating the need to buy in soya-based feeds. Lucerne grown on the farm produces forage with protein at very low input levels, and they also feed homegrown maize silage, grass silage, barley and beans. A change in breed to Brown Swiss also provides more milk from grass, and they are currently investigating growing maize and climbing beans together for higher protein.
Diverting lower quality silages to the anaerobic digester can ensure the cows only get the very best quality.
Focus on sustainability through a healthy productive herd
They operate as a team, with the herd manager, the vet and the nutritionist regularly working together to improve health and nutrition, routinely testing for diseases such as Neospora, Johne’s and mycoplasma. The 130 cow herd is vaccinated where possible to prevent diseases such as lungworm and ringworm.
Focus on sustainability through breeding
To avoid importing disease to the farm, they have been a closed herd since moving to Brown Swiss, and have been breeding for longevity. Using sexed semen on their best cows to breed our replacement heifers, they also use good beef semen on the rest of the herd which gives us good quality beef cross calves to sell to a local rearer and fattener. They also sell pedigree heifers to other herds.
They refrain from buying feed and feed supplements in 20kg bags where possible, buying in bulk or in one-tonne bags instead.
They have stopped using wrapped bales for silage, using a silage bunker instead. Straw is baled in square bales so more can be stored under cover, the string of which can be recycled, unlike round bale net wrap.
They use washable udder cloths, washed in an industrial washing machine, instead of disposable wipes.
Using good bacteria to fight infectious bacteria in the dairy herd, they dose the water supply and treat the cow beds, maintaining a high herd health status, also using outdoor calf hutches to improve calf health.
Protect and improve soil structure through regenerative agriculture
On the arable side of the farm, they use direct drilling and strip tillage methods in combination with cover crops and crop rotation to conserve soil and increase soil carbon. They have evolved their own maize drilling system over 10 years, so they can strip till into cover crops.
Already applying digestate liquid with a trailing shoe tanker to reduce ammonia losses, they are also experimenting in treating digestate with sulphuric acid to reduce ammonia losses from digester through to soil application. Not only does this save ammonia emissions, but also reduces requirements for nitrogen fertiliser from fossil fuels.
Sustainability of the natural environment
Working closely with the Norfolk Rivers Trust, they work to protect and enhance the chalk stream that runs through the fields. With the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, they are working to improve the environment for wildlife, such as developing wildlife corridors between ponds.
Extension and community outreach
When not restricted by Covid, the farm regularly hosts farm tours from school parties, groups of interested members of the public, and other farmers, to share their sustainability story.
Due to the gradual and continuous change involved, it has been hard to quantify financial benefits, but the dairy herd at Copys Green Farm has moved from loss-making to being profitable, and their developments have considerably reduced waste and fuel use on the farm.