Improved nutrient planning and more effective weed control is helping a Wiltshire dairy farmer improve forage crop production.
Managing a herd of 150 high-yielding Holstein-Friesians with 90 followers on only 80 hectares of owned land means Josh Ovens relies on rented ground and bought-in feed to supplement his shortfall of grazed grass and conserved forage.
To help improve tight margins, Josh and his agronomist Lisa Hambly, of Agrovista, have embarked on a mission to optimise the quality and quantity of home-grown feed at D.Mortimer and Sons’ Norrington Gate Farm, near Melksham.
Josh says: “We knew we needed to do something.
We were applying slurry where it was convenient rather than where needed, close to the farm and ignoring more distant fields.
“In addition, we didn’t have a weed control plan in place.
We left grasses pretty much to their own devices and waited to see what emerged in maize before deciding whether to spray or not.
However, given the pressures of everyday farming, we didn’t find the time to make changes.
It all seemed a bit daunting.” Lisa believes it is a common theme.
She says: “Many dairy farmers want to improve their forage agronomy to reduce costs, but it’s often easier said than done.
“The key is to start with a plan; if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” The plan started to come together when Josh returned full-time to the family farm two years ago.
The first step was to sample soils, which highlighted the differences in nutrient status and fertility between fields.
Lisa says: “As an example, those near the dairy unit were very high in P and K compared with those further away.
We used this information to create a nutrient plan, using organic manures more effectively and using bagged fertiliser as a balance.”
The farm grows 20-24ha of two-year leys for multi-cut silage, recently introduced to increase yield and quality, along with 20-24ha of five-year leys for grazing, 30ha of maize and 28ha of spring barley, 12ha of which is managed under a Countryside Stewardship wholecrop cereals scheme.
A further 40ha of grass is grown on rented land.
Josh says: “Having a plan enables us to make much more targeted and timely applications.
We apply slurry on the maize stubbles and before we drill new maize fields, as well as on spring barley ground after February 15, as stipulated by the scheme.
“We also apply it to silage aftermaths and, at the end of the season, use a contractor to treat all the grazing grassland with an injection system, which reduces nutrient loss and ensures slurry is placed where it’s needed in the soil.” Improved weed control has had an immediate impact.
Lisa says: “There was a big weed seedbank, so we used pre-em in the maize.
This meant we could wait to see what emerged, rather than having to react.
“We used an appropriate post-emergence application plus foliar feed to give the crop a really good start.” Josh says: “It massively improved yield; more than three tonnes per acre compared with the farm average.
Lisa has also recommended pulling forward the drilling date to further optimise dry matter content and starch yield.” Spring barley herbicide use is limited by stewardship scheme rules, but a simple post-emergence application keeps broad-leaved weeds in check.
New grass leys are now regularly walked and sprayed where necessary to control weeds such as chickweed, particularly important for longer term grazing leys as they are slower to get going.
Lisa says: “Grass is a crop which gives and gives, but you have to remove any competition in the first year.
Grass can then tiller and out-compete weeds.” Josh has seen grass quality and quantity significantly improve and, overall, he is producing better forage crops for less money.
“Lisa has been a great source of advice and fresh thinking.
“Forming a robust forage plan has been invaluable and is something we should all strive to achieve.”