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Arable to dairy conversion made profitable with precision grass management

Over the last 10 months Peepy Farm, near Hexham, has been successfully converted from arable to dairy with grassland management now the focus. 

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Robert Craig (left) and Mark Housby (right) took over the Peepy Farm tenancy in October 2018.
Robert Craig (left) and Mark Housby (right) took over the Peepy Farm tenancy in October 2018.
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Arable to dairy conversion made profitable with precision grass management

As the foundation farm for the late cattle breeder, John Moffitt, Peepy Farm has long been associated with dairy cows.

 

Some of the world’s most instrumental dairy genetics bred by Mr Moffitt and bearing the Hunday prefix came from the 220-hectare (544-acre) unit.

 

However, in the years following Mr Moffitt’s death in 2008, the Moffitt family gave up the farm tenancy, which was then farmed in-hand by Allendale Estate.

 

After the dairy cows left the farm, it was used to grow mainly high-yielding cereal, using precision technology to minimise input costs.

 

The farm recently hosted an open day, organised by Germinal GB, where dairy business developer, Robert Craig, and farm manager, Mark Housby, discussed how they have successfully converted the farm back to a profitable dairy enterprise within the 10 months.

 

Mr Craig said: “Everything we do is about keeping things simple, robust and all about the grass.”

 

In September 2018, Peepy Farm was drilled back to grass using Aber high-sugar grasses and milking started up there once again.

 

Since then, the herd has expanded to 460 Holstein and cross-bred cows calving on a split spring and autumn block, averaging 7,000 litres per cow.

 

Maximising milk production and solids from forage is now the business’ primary objective, with quality silage and rotational grazing contributing upwards of 5,000 litres per cow of the total yield.

 

Mr Craig said: “From the moment we heard the tenancy was going to be available, budgets and plans were made to determine how we could see a worthwhile return on investment into someone else’s land on a 15-year let agreement within five to 10 years, depending on milk price.

 

“While the farm’s development is still very much in progress, we have taken steps to ensure we reach our production and profit potential.”


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As part of the grazing structure water 49 water troughs were installed with 12km of 50mm pipe.
As part of the grazing structure water 49 water troughs were installed with 12km of 50mm pipe.

The previous tenant had worked with the precision crop production service provider, SOYL, for precision variable rates, and Mr Craig and Mr Housby continued the relationship in order to understand the farm’s nutrient programme history and current P, K and pH levels.

 

They also wanted to take advantage of the technology for grass management purposes.

 

Mr Craig said: “The farm has very diverse soil types, ranging from some slightly clay soils to some really nice deep loam and lighter free draining sand and gravel. It was important for us to make sure our soil nutrients and health were in order below ground so we could maximise forage production above ground.”

 

With a targeted grazing season from mid-February to late November, and winter feed consisting of silage made from grass growth surplus, the core of the business enterprise has been reliant on the grass ley performance.

 

To support the farm’s intensive forage needs, a specialist mixture for milk producers was reseeded on the entire farm.

 

Consisting of perennial rye-grasses and white clover, this mixture had already proven successful on two other dairy units Mr Craig operates in Cumbria.

 

Ben Wixey, from Germinal GB, explained: “Some of the varieties in Peepy Farm’s mixture have the highest energy per ha on the Recommended Grass and Clover Lists.”

Some of the biggest investment cost to the business had been installing fencing, cow tracks and watering systems.

 

Mr Housby said: “Without the right infrastructure in place, we could not be able to maintain rotational grazing for nine months out of the year – which has been an integral part to our financial success."

 

After mapping and measuring the farm, it was split into 43 paddocks, averaging 5.25ha (13 acres) in size.

 

“We installed 49, 400-gallon concrete water troughs and laid 12km of 50mm pipe that feeds from a borehole on the farm.

 

"The water system alone was about £53,000 in costs,” said Mr Craig. “We then installed over 40km of permanent electric fencing for about £50,000 when including staff and contractor costs.”

 

Originally, Mr Craig and Mr Housby intended to use concrete railway sleepers for the 4km of cow tracks needed for the set-up.

 

However, with a price tag of £11 per sleeper, and four needed per metre, they quickly became an expensive option. Searching for an alternative, Mr Craig contacted a dealer for used artificial turf from school football fields and was able to secure turf for little more than the cost of delivery, paying around £800 per lorry load hauling 500m worth of turf.

 

“Set with foundations built from gravel purchased from the estate, we expect the turf cow tracks to last at least 20 years.

 

We have also installed these on our two Cumbria units and have seen a reduction in lameness issues because they are much more suitable for cow feet than concrete,” said Mr Craig.

 

“Together, the turf cow tracks and fencing infrastructure has costed us £50/m, saving us more than £20,000 from our original budget.”

Farm facts

  • Peepy Farm’s milk contract is with the Cooperative First Milk and pays on milk compositional quality with bonuses for hygiene and volume.
  • To maintain high butterfat and protein content on the forage base system, cows with New Zealand genetics were sourced from the other two businesses in Cumbria and from Grasstec in Ireland.
  • Currently, milk averages 4.78 per cent butterfat and 3.8 per cent protein achieving an average milk price of just below 32p over the past 10 months.

The farm is part of the GrassCheckGB network, so Mr Housby takes grass growth measurements with a plate meter at least once a week and will increase frequency during peak grass growth periods.

 

He said: “Grass growth measurements are recorded with AgriNet, allowing us to track grass growth and feed availability for each paddock. By analysing data, we can map out which paddocks we can move cows on to, which ones need more time to recover and which ones are far enough ahead to silage.”

 

Cows are allowed in paddocks at 2,800DM/ha and taken out at 1,600DM/ha to ensure the ley is not damaged from overgrazing.

 

With target turnout by February 10, Mr Housby said he aimed to have the entire farm grazed once by April 6. Silage production was held off until the first part of May, then only done to manage grass surplus.

 

“By concentrating on grazed grass being our cheapest feed we are reducing the need for bought-in feed requirements,” said Mr Housby. “Currently during milking, we only supplement cows with 1kg of concentrates per day.”

 

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