Chris Brake was one of three finalists in the British Grassland Society’s (BGS) grassland farmer of the year awards for 2018. Hannah Park paid him a visit at the family farm near Frome, Somerset.
Grassland management has long been part of the system at Church Farm, Berkley, which has been farmed by the Brake family for the last three generations. It is now home to Chris Brake along with wife, Jane, and their sons Daniel, 15, and Jamie, 13.
The farm extends to 324 hectares (800 acres) in total, incorporating a 121ha (300-acre) grazing platform and a further 57ha (140-acre) area of grassland on a neighbouring unit which was taken on three years ago and is used predominately for grazing youngstock.
Milk from forage is key and the 450-head cross-bred herd achieved 4,300 litres per cow from forage from an average yield of 8,300 litres/cow last year.
Central to this is grass productivity, of which soil sampling is a crucial part, carried out every year over the farm’s mainly clay and limestone brash soils.
This sees about quarter of the farm’s land, which rises to 137 metres (450 feet) at its highest point, sampled annually, with the whole farm covered every four to five years.
As well as a tool to keep an eye on soil indices, Mr Brake explains the process is usually followed with a lime application to achieve an optimal soil pH.
Slurry is spread onto the grazing platform in January or February and again after first and second cut, with maize ground receiving an application pre-ploughing in March via a splash plate and dribble bar in the main.
The farm grows about 223ha (550 acres) of grass silage annually, as well as 67ha (165 acres) of maize.
First cut was done on May 13 and 21 this year, with up to four cuts planned, depending on grass growth rates.
Mr Brake says: “The first block we cut for silage was part of the grazing platform so I was keen to get this off to get it back in the rotation. Made up predominately of Italian rye-grasses, it was slightly ahead of the second longer-term ley, situated away from the farm.”
Aside from about 200 round bales made each year, which are used to feed to youngstock, silage is mainly clamped, without an additive treatment.
A 3.1-mile network of cow tracks are in place to provide access to the farm’s paddock grazing system for the milking herd, built using the farm’s own extracted stone and treated limestone.
Turnout was in early April this year, with cows generally moved to a fresh paddock every 12 hours and buffer fed, if required, in-line with grass availability at any given time.
Alongside Mr Brake and his father Martyn, the farm also employs three full-time staff, including herd manager Neil Blizard who has been with the family for the past seven years.
Mr Brake says: “Hard-working and reliable staff are absolutely crucial to the success of the farm and we would not be where we are now in terms of production or herd health without their input.
“Neil is dedicated to the cows and is meticulous in his protocol, which is to thank for the consistent high health status of the herd.
“He also oversees grass growth monitoring and will be checking paddocks two to three times per week during the grazing season, monitoring availability by eye.
“We will cut for silage if paddocks get ahead of us or, similarly, will feed more silage if it is wet and intakes are low or if growth rates are back because of the weather.”
A regular programme of grass reseeding is carried out, with new leys generally established annually on fields or paddocks which are considered to be performing poorly when it comes to productivity or those with a high weed burden.
This has seen the whole of the recently bought neighbouring block reseeded in the last three years since it was taken on.
Milking done twice daily via a 40:40 parlour in which cows are fed to yield and milk is supplied to local cheese makers Wyke Farms, Bruton, at 3.3 per cent protein and 4.1 per cent butterfat.
Calving is predominately done on an autumn-block system, in which 400 will calve, including heifers, from September 1 until November 10, alongside a smaller spring block, in which about 80 will calve from January 20 to the end of March.
Dairy bulls are used on autumn calvers, with heifers served to calve at 23 months of age and artificially inseminated to sexed semen, alongside the first 100 cows. A beef bull is then used on the spring group.
“Splitting the herd separates the workload around calving, but also means we can push back any cows which slip in the autumn group into spring so we do not lose as many not in-calf,” explains Mr Brake.
“We can also make the most of spring grass, as all cows are in-milk in April, May and June to coincide with turnout, after which we start drying off to reduce the demand on the platform in summer.”
Calving mainly takes place outside, over an area split into five calving paddocks which, given the tight stocking rate, cows move between every two weeks to keep ground fresh. This year, only Holstein Friesian genetics have been used to produce replacements.
The herd is milked twice daily in a 40:40 parlour, with milk supplied to local cheese makers Wkye Farms, Bruton.
Mr Brake says: “We are looking for a non-extreme, well-balanced animal which will milk and graze well.
“We introduced some Brown Swiss genetics to the original Holstein Friesian cross Swedish Reds but have found they have not suited our system as well. We might cross back with some Swedish Reds in a few years as this has worked well in the past.”
The farm is running 135 in-calf heifers and 160 heifer calves, with dairy bull calves alongside beef crosses sold to the same neighbouring finisher who, thanks to isolation unit facilities, is able to take animals regardless of TB status.
“Although we are clear of TB, it is a constant problem in this area and being shut down without being able sell calves off-farm it is a disaster when you factor in the costs involved in keeping animals which have not originally been budgeted for.
“The arrangement with the unit works for both of us as he is getting stock from one place and we have the security of knowing we have a guaranteed outlet for calves.
“We also run more replacements than we know we will need in their first year, as we would rather sell surplus stock than be in a position where we have to buy-in animals.”