Improving soil health has been the answer to maximising milk from high quality grass forage on a family dairy farm in West Wales
Measuring every aspect of performance to identify where improvements can be made has been the mantra for Noel and Eleanor Richards, at Coedmoelon, near Carmarthen.
Soil and grassland management, heifer rearing and calf health have all improved dramatically over the last 10 years as a result.
Mr Richards says: “We supply Muller on an unaligned liquid contract, so we have to keep a close eye on our costs.
We have learnt much from scrutinising past performance and value what we are doing now.” About 13 years ago, Mr Richards invested in a new 50-point rotary parlour while simultaneously increasing herd size and switching to three times a day milking.
He bought additional land nearby when it became available, allowing him to increase his herd size to 700 cows across a total of 273 hectares (675 acres).
The business now comprises three separate farms within half-a-mile of each other.
The first farm is centred around the rotary parlour where the milking herd is housed, the second farm is where dry cows and the calving and calf-rearing unit are based and the third farm is used to rear all the heifers.
With rainfall averaging more than 1,550mm each year, it is no surprise Mr Richards describes the land as ‘challenging’.
Enduring five weeks of rainfall followed by a brief one-week window to make silage has persuaded him to focus on soil health to enable his soils to drain more freely.
He admits to viewing slurry as ‘something just to get rid of’ in the past but now he sees it as a valuable resource, applying it strategically, based on the results of a detailed soil analysis and regular visual examination of the soil profile.
Although he has always carried out some basic soil testing, Mr Richards says it was the involvement of Agrovista agronomist Lisa Hambly which marked the start of a new approach to soil health.
“I now spend more time examining the soil profile, looking to see if there are enough earthworms and if the roots are penetrating down deeply.
“I thought I was giving our land the correct amount of fertiliser but Lisa suggested my application rates were too high and advised reducing them.
Now we use a contractor with a variable rate fertiliser spreader and I am applying the same amount of fertiliser as before but across a much larger area of land.
“We test our slurries regularly so we know what they contain and can balance the mineral fertiliser applied to the land.
Careful consideration is given to where we spread the slurry.
The purchase of the additional land has allowed us to apply slurry across a wider area at lower concentrations.
“Bringing forward our first application of fertiliser to February rather than March has resulted in our first cut of silage on March 25 last year.
I was concerned this early silage may have been of reduced quality but it analysed at 12ME.” Sheep grazing the land over winter allows Mr Richards to walk it regularly.
“I walk the fields daily to check the sheep over the winter months, so I see where the land is lying wet and where grass growth is impeded.
This allows me to pinpoint where I need to do any remedial work in spring,” he says.
Improving a significant proportion of the grass leys at the farm was important when Mr Richards switched to a housed system as he needed higher quality silage.
“Our traditional grass was primarily shorter grazing leys which headed too quickly when left for mowing.
We were looking for hybrid perennial ryegrasses with a broader leaf to capture more sunlight and higher sugar content.
“Ploughing to establish new leys at Coedmoelon is undertaken regularly but we find over-seeding also works really well here, especially when it is done in autumn.
This allows the seeds to germinate and establish over winter and then flourish in spring and summer.
“If we over-seed in spring, we have to wait until the following summer before we see the benefit.
Before over-seeding we will open the swards up by eradicating weeds to create gaps to give the new seeds a better chance of establishment.
“Now we are growing an average 15 tonnes of dry matter per hectare each year and each silage cut is analysing at 11ME to 12ME.
We have considered growing maize, but when the farm grows grass like this, why would I do that? “We buy-in some maize and grow a small quantity of wholecrop in fields where we are looking to clean up the ground prior to reseeding and this is fed to the dry cows,” Mr Richards adds.
Achieving the high quality grass crop has allowed Mr Richards to substantially improve his milk from forage figure and he admits this represents a major turnaround for him.
“Several years ago, I was using forage only as a fibre source because the milk price meant I could afford to do it.
However, with more challenging milk prices coupled with escalating feed prices we now need to produce maximum milk volumes from our own land.
“Currently, a minimum of 50% of the dry matter fed to our cows is from homegrown forage and our cows are much healthier and consequently easier to look after.
“Looking ahead, we should be aiming to achieve 12ME on a regular basis.
We are optimistic we can achieve this with a continued focus on soil health and making best use of innovations in grass seed and technology which will become available to us.”
Lisa Hambly has been working with Mr Richards for four years and when she came to the farm, she soon realised the health of the soils was holding back the potential for grass growth.
She says: “There are many cows at Coedmoelon for the acreage and a large quantity of slurry.
The soil types vary significantly across the farm and some of the soils could not cope with the amounts of slurry being applied.
“We began by digging soil pits across the farm and examining the soil texture.
We did a comprehensive soil analysis which gave us a clear picture of the pH status, nutrient availability and trace element deficiencies.
“The results of regular soil, slurry and silage analysis guide everything I recommend.
If there is a problem in a field, we will dig a hole and do a soil test to try and work out what is happening.
“We use different fertilisers to reflect the soil analysis results.
Some of the soils have a high magnesium to calcium ratio and are tight so we applied a calcium carbonate lime to raise the pH from 6 to 6.5.
“We recognised sulphur is limiting, so fertilisers containing sulphur are used to enable sufficient protein formation in the grass,” Ms Hambly adds.
Excellent teamwork has been key to success at the farm and Ms Hambly says maintaining constant communications between Mr Richards, the nutritionist, herself and the contractors via a WhatsApp group has been critical.
Stakes She says: “When doing multi-cut silage, the nutrient applications have to be timed correctly and exactly balanced as otherwise we will end up with a clamp of poor quality forage.
The stakes are much higher when advising dairy farmers because herd health and performance relies on achieving clamps full of consistently high quality grass.
“Ultimately, as a result of Mr Richards’ commitment to improving soil health, his cows are happier and healthier and he has saved 2p a litre on his purchased feed costs.”
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