Freshly calved cows have been out at grass between milkings since mid-February at Tim and Louise Downes’ 300-cow organic dairy herd near Church Stretton, Shropshire, where for the first time stock are to be offered edible trees with medicinal properties. Simon Wragg reports.
Think of forage feeds and few would bring to mind edible trees. But these will play an important role in the grazing platform at The Farm, Longnor, near Church Stretton, this summer, allowing individual cows to selectively graze foliage with medicinal properties as their dietary and health needs change, says organic dairy farmer Tim Downes.
The 270-hectare (650-acre) farm business, which was recently rewarded for its uptake of new thinking and technologies by winning the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative (OMSCo) farm of the year award, has entered into a joint research project with Harper Adams University and The Woodland Trust.
Mr Downes says: “We have planted willow in an area of pasture as the species contains salicylic acid, an active ingredient in aspirin. But there are a number of other species which have been planted in randomised blocks elsewhere, including lime, hornbeam, sycamore and disease tolerant elm which all have medicinal properties of their own.”
Strip of trees
A bank of 74 trees occupies a 1.46ha (3.6-acre) strip through which the herd passes regularly as it works round the grazing platform.
The randomised pattern to plantings is deliberate, allowing machinery to maintain pasture while adhering to density limits of 50 trees/ha (20 trees/acre) for land to still qualify as grazing under current Single Farm Payment rules.
Planted two years ago, saplings are now mature enough to be grazed, but remain protected by electric fencing.
Electronic collars will allow research student George Hook, who is on placement from Harper Adams with the Downes, to monitor whether individual cows are grazing forage off the floor or foliage at head height.
Data can be cross-referenced to individual herd health records to establish whether cows are self-medicating.
It is not new thinking, as Mr Downes says: “Research from the USA has already shown cattle will do this with plant species rich in certain minerals and nutrients if given the opportunity.
“Anecdotally, there must be something in it as you will see cows actively seeking out and eating ivy or tugging at hazel when moving to fresh pasture.”
A visit to the Acres conference in USA in December last year with fellow grazing enthusiasts Wil Armitage and Rob Richmond allowed the trio to hear the latest thinking on nutrient and mineral capturing techniques.
It is an area being followed closely in the UK by some livestock and arable farmers. Mr Downes says: “We felt like we were learning a whole new aspect to farming.”
But new it is not. Many leading exponents in the USA refer back to a very English text, Newman Turner’s Fertility Pastures which was first printed in 1951. This looked at the value and benefit to livestock of herbal leys.
This concept is already in existence today with a number of UK dairy, beef and sheep farms including chicory into pasture as an anti-parasitic to help reduce gut worms. At The Farm, walnut trees have also been used at the rear of livestock accommodation to deter insects during summer.
But the interest in understanding the complex biological relationships between soil, forage (or other agricultural crops), the livestock it supports and the wider environment, is gathering momentum.
As well as testing soils, as the arable sector would for N, P, and K indices, pH and organic matter content, Mr Downes can foresee parameters such as soil conductivity and sugar holding capacity being included.
He says: “At the Acres conference, we learned about the Brix classification of soils, which is measured using a refractometer. It measures the amount of light which is reflected off a substance and is recorded between zero and a maximum of 30 per cent.
“A soil with a reading of 10 per cent is suggested to improve disease resistance in plants, at 15 per cent it promotes pest and insect resistance, it just goes on.”
A refractometer can also be of valuable use to livestock farmers. Shropshire Farm Vets, which attends the farm, sourced a reasonable quality model which Mr Downes is using to monitor quality of colostrum.
It resembles a hand-held monocular-like microscope and can be sourced online.
When colostrum is drawn fresh from a cow post-calving, it records 30 per cent on the Brix scale, but 24 hours later, a new sample from the same dam has declined in value by 50 per cent.
This, says Mr Downes, reflects the importance of getting fresh colostrum into a newborn calf as soon as possible for nutrition and health benefits. The aim is to use the instrument widely as time allows.
Mr Downes says: “If we can record data looking at soil characteristics, forage quality [by sampling sap from leaf material], and marrying this to milk quality, we may start to understand why some cows milk better on certain fields than others.”
It is a knowledge he would like to see shared with others. There are already a number of forums on social media for specific elements of the principles the family are looking to embrace.
Importantly, spectrometry is adding to the work already in hand improving pasture for this year’s grazing season.
The mild winter has seen sward covers gently increase to an average of 2,250kg DM/ha (910kg DM/acre) across the grazing area at the point of turnout on February 11.
Fresh-calvers – the spring-calving herd begins in early February, with staff monitoring down-calvers around the clock via cameras accessed using smartphone technology – stay out between milkings with daily allocations determined using a spring rotation planner.
Mr Downes says: “Paddocks have come through winter well, albeit wet conditions under foot mean we cannot graze hard. However, the early bite will only help encourage new, fresh regrowth. Fortunately, we have not seen any browning off or die back with frosts which came in mid-February.
“Once past the magic day, where grass growth exceeds demand, we will continue with 12-hour paddocks, some of which will include access to areas planted with willow sticks.”
Other improvements to the grazing platform saw a Moore Uni-Drill used last season to stitch in grass seed, clover and chicory into 56ha (140 acres) of under-performing sward to good effect.
This year, the aim is to improve grass utilisation further, helped in part by better cow tracks for access.
Mr Downes says: “Today, the herd is producing about 5,850 litres of milk per cow for OMSCo. Prices have recovered over the past year, but there is still a need to watch costs closely. If foliage trials help improve herd health, this can only be welcome.”
But at near 40ppl before seasonal adjustments early in 2016, income is having to compensate for poorer prices received during the lows of 2014/2015. Much of the recovery is attributed to the co-op securing valuable export markets for processed organic milk.
While production costs remain a concern, the Downes openly admit putting a value on foliage trials will be difficult. But theirs is not a system which carries cost unnecessarily. For example, cows housed over winter manage on self-feed silage topped up in the parlour rather than relying on the use of a diet feeder.
Other improvements are already in the pipeline, Mr Downes says: “This year, instead of growing oats which would have been fed to youngstock [including some Angus-sired calves destined to be finished for Waitrose by Mr Downes’ father, John], we have under-sown wholecrop pea and barley mix to bring red clover into the system. This will produce a higher protein forage to be fed out next spring to down-calvers.
“It will be interesting to see how the foliage trial impacts on what we call special needs cows – those suffering mastitis, poorer fertility and/or lameness – which we try to keep closer to the parlour. Organic rules on medicines are forever tightening, so it already has a role to play.”