Andrew Pounder was one of three finalists in the British Grassland Society’s grassland farmer of the year awards for 2017. Wendy Short went to meet him family at the family dairy farm in County Durham.
The Pounder family is achieving a figure just short of 5,000kg of milk from forage from its 200-strong herd of pedigree Holstein Friesians at Stainton Hill, near Barnard Castle, where the average yield stands at 9,200kg.
The farm was judged on a variety of BGS competition standards, including grazing and forage management and livestock production data.
Mole control is considered an important aspect of high quality silage production. Traps are set and monitored by the family from November until February, with a professional mole catcher employed at least once through the year.
The first spell of dry weather in March is a trigger for the chain harrowing of all of the fields, in order to lift dead grass and scatter any surface soil left by the moles in the preceding months.
A week later, the land is rolled, in a second attempt to flatten molehills and to press down any stones which may have been lifted by the harrow. At the same time, the area adjacent to the hedgerows is cleared of dead tree branches and other debris to ensure the entire field is utilised.
Grass productivity begins with the soil sampling carried out extensively at Stainton Hill, where the land is mainly a medium loam over clay and sandstone.
One third of the land, which sits at 180 metres above sea level, is sampled annually, with phosphate and potash applied if levels are considered too low. The target pH of 6 is achieved through an application of calcium lime and the majority of the farm is serviced by a well-maintained drainage system.
Slurry from the dairy cubicle housing has always been prized and the installation of a new store some six years ago has reduced chemical fertiliser inputs, as well as greatly increasing flexibility of application.
It is spread by a contractor through an umbilical system, to preserve soil structure. Bought-in nitrogen is applied at the end of March and again after first cut silage, using a product which includes sulphur.
The entire first cut of silage is designated for the milking cows, with second cut and some third cut allocated to the youngstock. A proportion of third cut is made into big bales and chopped, with 1kg/head of straw added, to feed the dry cows.
Before mowing for first cut silage, a sample of fresh grass is sent for testing through a local
agricultural merchant, to indicate whether sugar content and nitrate levels fall within a specified range. Andrew Pounder also makes his own assessment.
He says: “The quality and quantity of first cut is crucially important, so we make every effort to get it right and use a chop length of 17-24mm, to maximise sugar content.
“We consider the grass to be ready to mow at the point when the seed head is just visible. Second cut is taken at the beginning of July and it is allowed to go to seed, because we find our replacement heifers lay down excess fat, if the quality of silage they receive is too high. As an insurance policy, we also apply an inoculant additive, which isused routinely unless the weather is exceptionally favourable.”
Equal attention to detail is paid to the ensiling process. Mr Pounder adds: “The sides of the clamp are rolled constantly while the crop is being brought in and a loose sheet is fitted overnight.
“Rolling does not begin again until the first load of fresh grass arrives the next day. This helps to prevent bruising, which can lead to spoilage.
“One layer of Visqueen sheeting is used for the sides, with one layer of cling film, plus two layers of Visqueen sheeting placed on the top. The next stage is to apply a green mesh cover, followed by individual rubber mesh mats.”
The cows are turned out during the day as soon as possible, with a date of April 12 last season. Buffer fed all year round, they go out at night from mid-May until housing. A move three years ago from rotational grazing to a paddock system has been beneficial, he reports.
“The rotational grazing resulted in a lot of wasted grass, as the cows were not turned into the fields until it reached a height of 12-15cm and we felt this system also diluted the nutrients,” he adds.
“We now use a plate meter and turn the cows into the four or five-acre paddocks when the grass dry matter content reaches 2,800-3,000kgs per hectare, taking them out at 1,500-1,600kgs.
“This more precise method of grazing management has increased our yield from forage figure by almost 1,000kgs.
“We also found the grass grows more rapidly when grazed at a high stocking rate, although the system does create more labour input.”
Despite a regular programme of grass reseeding, with some two-year leys, the Pounders will only intervene if productivity is compromised and the farm carries a small acreage that has been established for more than a decade.
The mixture chosen for reseeds contains intermediate perennial rye-grass, both tetraploid and diploid late perennial rye-grasses and a hybrid rye-grass. For forthcoming seasons, the addition of white clover for short-term leys is being considered, in order to try and increase silage protein content.
The main problem weeds are docks, which are spot-sprayed or dug out by hand, and thistles, which are also removed manually.
Fields for new leys are power- harrowed down to roughly 50cms and the seed is sown using a one-pass, tined Einbock machine, which is set at a rate of 18kgs seed/ha. The land then receives two passes with a roller, to promote good seed-to-soil contact.
DM - 33.5 per cent
ME - 11.8 per cent
D value - 73.2 per cent
Protein - 17 per cent
Meanwhile, grassland which continues to show productivity potential is refreshed through the use of a slot-seeding technique. This is generally carried out in July, during a period where at least two days’ rain is forecast after the planned sowing date.
The total mixed ration fed to the Staintonhill herd, which calves all year round, is a simple mixture of grass silage and a small percentage of homegrown, wholecrop cereals, with concentrates offered at 2kg/head in the parlour and in out-of-parlour feeders.
Last year’s silage quality was so high that brewers’ grains were omitted from the ration, a decision which produced a cost saving of £6,000 without any subsequent loss of yield. Concentrate usage is 2 tonnes/cow, with concentrates per litre at 0.22kg.
Milk is sold on a liquid contract which offers an additional 2.5ppl per 1 per cent over a base level of 4 per cent butterfat; the figure levelled at 4.58 per cent over this winter, while the rolling average for protein is 3.35 per cent.
“It is going to be a challenge to continue hitting the butterfat target when the cows go out to grass, if yields are to be maintained at their current level,” admits Mr Pounder. “In December 2016, our butterfat average was 4.58 per cent, but it went down to 3.8 per cent from June until housing.
“Unless we can counter the effect of the high protein spring grass, it is likely we will be receiving about 25ppl, due to the fall in butterfat production.
“There are products available which claim to lift the percentage, but there is no guarantee that they will prove cost-effective.
“Our main strategy is to try to put money aside at times of peak profitability, to provide available capital to draw down in times of greater financial pressure.
“We would like to invest and expand the herd, but our inclination is to sit tight until have an indication of the effect of Brexit on UK dairy farms.”