Producing the highest quality silage is central to the strategy of maximising the margin over purchased feed at Bower House Farm.
As a tenant of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s Bolton Abbey estate near Skipton, Andrew Ayrton cannot choose to invest to expand cow numbers without shouldering unacceptable risk.
Instead, he has opted to review all aspects of his farming system to identify changes which will improve performance and increase efficiency.
He says: “My father died suddenly in 2006 and up until then, he had made most of the decisions. I did not want to push him into retirement so this was the first time I had the cheque book.”
Maximising the margin of milk from forage has been Mr Ayrton’s principal aim since taking over the farm. Although land at Bower House Farm rises to 300 metres (1,000 feet) and rainfall regularly exceeds 1,200mm per annum, he takes three cuts of silage from two-thirds of the mowing land and two cuts from the remainder.
Mr Ayrton has also proved his silage making credentials by winning all three classes of the keenly contested Craven Grassland Society’s silage competition in 2013.
As well as grass silage, Mr Ayrton also grows 23 hectares (57 acres) of winter wheat which is ensiled and then fed as part of a mixed ration with grass silage and brewers’ grains, with some soya added over winter.
Mr Ayrton relies on contractors but his decision to focus on the dairy cows has paid dividends. He says: “We no longer have sheep on this farm so my grass is now earlier and I aim to cut during the last week in May. This means I can usually get the contractors in exactly when I want them.
“We use the full length of the clamp for the first cut and then the second cut goes as a layer across the top to reduce the variation in the nutrient content of the silage fed to the cows throughout the year,” Mr Ayrton adds.
“We switched from an acid based additive to a biological silage inoculant 15 years ago and I have been very pleased with the results.”
Mr Ayrton believes good clamp management throughout the process is vital when making the best silage. “The buckraking and the rolling is the most important job and I always make sure it is done exactly right. I buy new plastic sheets every year for the top of the clamp and use old sheets for the side walls which form an envelope – it is as good as double sheeting the whole thing.”
The wholecrop silage is placed in a separate clamp below a layer of third cut silage which reduces vermin damage, according to Mr Ayrton. It also allows for easy mixing of the whole crop with the grass silage when feeding.
The wholecrop wheat was originally included in the rotation to precede a grass ley but now Mr Ayrton adopts a different approach.
“We planned to reseed with grass after winter wheat but the soils across this farm are very variable, ranging from heavy clays to the east and much lighter loamy soils towards the west. We have found the wheat grows best in a few fields so now we tend to grow it continuously in the same spot.”
Soils are tested prior to re-seeding with grass, and phosphate and potash levels remain close to optimum due to the amounts of slurry these fields receive. Nitrogen is applied in the spring and Mr Ayrton has used a calcium carbonate lime to increase pH as magnesium levels in the soils are already high.
Mr Ayrton uses a long-term silage grass-seed mixture as he usually reseeds on a six-year rotation. The ley also includes varieties well suited to aftermath grazing.
The farm lies outside the NVZ designated area, so Mr Ayrton has not yet had to invest in upgrading his slurry storage although he recognises the farm would benefit from this.
“We have very limited storage and so we struggle to make the best use of our slurry as we have to spread all year round if ground conditions are suitable.”
Mr Ayrton now works closely with his consultant to monitor performance data, with particular attention paid to the margin over purchased feed. Housing his cows at night forms part of his strategy to achieve this.
“I like to get some dried forage into the cows at night because this provides them with a more consistent diet. I have found this means they maintain their fibre intake and it ensures they are making better use of the nutrients supplied by the grazed grass.”
He explains this arrangement means he has the flexibility to keep the cows in after milking on very wet days to prevent damage to swards and soils in what can be an inclement summer climate on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.
On fine days, the cows graze a series of paddocks close to the farm and the high yielders are grazed separately from the low yielders. Mr Ayrton strip grazes the fields and as they are quite small, no back fence is necessary and the cows move onto a new field every four to seven days.
“My topper is the best tool on the farm. I top the grazed field after the cows have moved off and when they return to it four weeks later, it is like spring grass again.”
Grazing the high and low yielders separately helps Mr Ayrton to manage the groups at milking but they are fed the same ration when they are housed at night and through the winter.
“We milk the high yielders first in the morning and last thing in the evening so this means they are milked almost exactly at 12-hour intervals,” he explains.
Mr Ayrton has recently adopted a different feeding strategy for his dry cows but is still looking to make refinements.
“Dry cow management is the weak part of my system. I keep them in separate straw pens and I have found feeding haylage rather than silage has reduced the incidence of displaced abomasum.”
He has recently submitted a planning application for a new building for the dry cows and he hopes this investment will allow him to make the changes he is keen to implement. “Once the dry cows can be housed in the new building, we will be able to feed them a specific mixed ration of silage and straw and we hope this will pay dividends.”
Mr Ayrton has also made changes to the management of his weaned calves, now feeding them clean, good quality barley straw rather than hay and haylage.
“We wean the calves at 12 to 12 weeks, and we have found feeding them barley straw supplemented with a rearer nut has meant they are much cleaner. I am using only marginally more straw on this system and the calves seem to do better on it,” he says.
During winter, calves go into cubicles at between 10 months and a year old and are fed on third cut silage. Otherwise, they are turned out at eight months old as before this age, Mr Ayrton finds they sometimes lose condition.
After a clement start to the spring in 2014, Mr Ayrton is reasonably pleased with his first cut silage this year. “It will not be as good as last year, which was exceptional, but we got it well and it went into the clamp dry. We will see how the analysis turns out.”
If cows are what they eat, then Mr Ayrton’s show record with his pedigree Holsteins is testament to the quality of his haylage.
Championships at Malham in 2013, best cow in milk at Gargrave in 2012 and reserve champion at Kilnsey in 2011 are just some of the titles secured by the Bower House herd.
Looking to the future, maximising returns on every aspect of production at Bower House Farm is Mr Ayrton’s prime objective.
“I know what I can do to improve things here but it is working out how I can do it from a practical perspective. I think the micro-management of my cows will pay dividends because getting bigger is not an option.”