For dairy farmer Chris Shingler, from Much Wenlock, Shropshire, the priority is to maximise milk yields through the use of home-grown forage.
As a result, the grassland management programme is a major priority, with reseeding considered to be an investment rather than a cost.
He says: “I aim to reseed 35 acres out of our 80 acres of grassland annually and use grass as a break crop in the arable rotation, following second winter wheat. I want to keep fields as productive as possible, and therefore choose both long-term grass mixes for cattle grazing and short-term mixes for bulky silage cuts, which will grow quickly and will be ready to cut in early May.
“To break the arable rotation, I use short-term grass mix Wynnstay Tower which produces a high-quality silage and take three to four cuts a year. In 2017, our first cut silage, taken on May 7, produced a D value of 72.1%, 14.7% crude protein and 11.5 MJ/kg ME. Producing high-quality silage has enabled me to continue to push yields and milk constituents, meaning we can reduce our reliance on concentrates.”
A further two cuts were taken in mid-June and mid-July, and then fields were used as late summer grazing. As the mix is made up of 100% Italian rye-grass, the grass grows very rapidly. Mr Shingler walks the fields weekly during the summer months to monitor growth, often increasing to every two to three days as harvesting approaches to make sure the grass is not going too ‘stemmy’.
For the permanent pastures, Mr Shingler aims for a long-lasting mix with clover such as Wynnstay Sovereign which will be the platform for his grazing land. When moving cows between fields, he walks the fields weekly to check sward height and moves the cows to the next pasture when covers are grazed down to 1,500kg/DM/hectare.
These fields are ploughed and reseeded every five to seven years, meaning the most up-to-date grass varieties are used and this helps to maximise forage quality and quantity.
Mr Shingler soil tests the whole farm every three years, looking at N, P, K and Mg levels and he uses the results to create a bespoke fertiliser plan for each field. He says: “Using the RB209 nutrient management guide, I’m able to decide on the nutritional requirements of each field dependent on the previous and following crops, and account for any deficiencies highlighted by the testing. This way, no fertiliser is wasted, and no nitrates are left in the soil post-harvest.”
Farmyard manure and fertiliser are applied to all fields, with the quantities applied dependent on individual field requirements. A nitrogen-sulphate fertiliser is also included and applied to new leys in spring, to compensate for the lower atmospheric sulphur levels, followed by a straight nitrogen application a few weeks later. After cutting, he uses any dirty water or slurry applied directly to the fields.
With the aim of reseeding 30-40% of the grassland area each year, rotationally fields are planted with grass every few years, which is helping to keep on top of weeds. With feed costs remaining high, it is important to make the most of home-grown feed. By investing in new leys, Mr Shingler ensures the whole farm remains productive, reducing reliance on bought-in concentrates and improving the business’ bottom-line.
Lower Westcombe Farm is one of three supplying milk to Westcombe Dairy. It has 380 dairy cows on 202ha averaging 9,000 litres per annum, 3,500 litres of which are from forage. Richard Calver is one of Westcombe Dairy’s directors, he says: “I’m attempting to improve one aspect of our farming operations every day and having a targeted spring weed control programme in place is among the tools in the box. Good grazing leys with about 20% clover and minimal weed content are really important to us, since they have a huge impact on milk quality and ultimately the bottom line, since each day we rely on the entire supply of milk to make into unpasteurised traditional cheeses on the farm.
“To keep on top of the game, I depend on specialist advice from our agronomist, Keith Hallett. We walk the grazing and silage swards at the beginning of each growing season and identify common weeds. Keith presents me with a comprehensive plan of each field, then we discuss the economic response of a herbicide application – I need to know the costs and what I’m likely to get in return. Any field with a weed infestation above the 10% threshold we are confident will achieve an economic response. “It’s also important to use the right herbicide. We used to find it difficult to keep clover in the sward, however we’ve since discovered there are clover-safe products on the market and they really do work.
“Then it’s down to good communication. Having identified which fields to treat, product is ordered and I liaise with the spray contractor to use the boom or spot spray. Critical to success is catching the weeds at the right time, not too early and not too far forward, so timing is dependent on the weather, it’s different every spring.”
Doubling of the dairy herd at J.F. Cobb and Sons, Newburgh Farm, near Dorchester, coupled with a fourfold increase in the amount of grass being mown and ensiled, has meant some significant changes in management strategy to keep the same levels of efficiency. The decision to expand the dairy enterprise meant reducing the arable land from 485ha to 101ha to grow more grass to support the two large dairy herds on the farm. The farm now grows 485ha of grass – an increase from the 141ha grown two years ago – producing up to four cuts of grass, ensiling up to 1,415ha each year. First and second cuts yield up to 19t and 14t/ha respectively, with third and fourth cuts yielding between 10t and 7t/ha. Cow numbers have doubled across the farm over the same period.
David Cobb says: “The secret to achieving the best out of a dairy cow is to ensure it has the best quality feed, so when it comes to silage-making getting quality in the pit at the right time without increasing production costs is critical. “It’s all about timeliness of operation,” he says. “We took the decision to take the silage-making process back in-house having relied on contractors in the past. It also coincided with a decision to improve the efficiency of the grass-cutting.”
This meant purchasing a self-propelled forage harvester and replacing two mowing rigs with one much larger set up, freeing up a tractor and driver to manage the pit or run a forage trailer. “We have cut out a tractor and an operator, although we have kept one of the old mowers to help with third and fourth cut and/or be used in the event of breakdown. Effectively one man is now doing twice the workload,” explains Mr Cobb. The mower of choice is a Krone EasyCut 9140 CV triple mower with conditioner units, which replaces two sets of Kverneland side and front mounted mowers. Working alongside this is a Krone KW 7.82 four-rotor tedder. Mr Cobb says: “Now we are relying on one set of mowers to cut most of the grass; we might change it after three seasons depending on what trade-in value we are offered. It should easily do six seasons without too much maintenance, but with only one set we have to have reliability at all times. “Although the EasyCut is quite lightweight for its size we increased horsepower from 225hp to 280hp supplied from a Fendt 828 which replaces a Massey 6499. We find the triple mowers balance the tractor and because the mower conditioners are quite heavy greater stability is achieved, especially on slopes. While the front-mounted mower prevents the tractor from running in standing crops the overall set up allows up and down operation, improving efficiency.”