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No-frills dairying fuelled from forage

Manchester-born new entrant Matthew Jackson operates a share farming dairying business in North Wales, where he lives with his fiancé Mari and two children.  Laura Bowyer reports.

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Penllech Bach farm facts:

  • 92 hectares (227 acres)
  • 400 New Zealand cows – 75% Jersey, 25% Freisian
  • 50:50 share farming agreement, with Mr Jackson owns the stock, and David Wynne Finch owns the site.
  • Cows are giving 22 litres at 4.75% butterfat and 3.72% protein.
  • A 24:48 Waikato parlour has been installed

In 2013 Matthew Jackson built a new dairy operation on a green-field site on the north coast of the Lleyn Penninsula, Gwynedd with the intention of making milk from forage.


Having visited the sea-side destination on family holidays as a child, he was drawn to the outdoors and working with animals, Matthew left school, and his home of Manchester, at the age of 15 to work on farms in the area.


To begin with, he worked on a beef and sheep farm, just two miles from the farm he runs and lives on today. Following this, he headed to New Zealand to press wool for a shearing contractor.


On his return, he worked on three different farms, living out of a ‘shack’ and travelling between jobs on a 50cc scooter. One of these jobs was relief milking on a dairy farm owned by David Wynne-Finch.


Mr Wynne-Finch offered the young Mr Jackson a full-time job as a junior herdsman, on the condition he travelled back to New Zealand to spend six months milking and learning about the grass-based system.


Mr Jackson said: “I returned to New Zealand to milk 400 Jersey cows in the South Island and it was a great experience. When I came back to Wales I worked at Cefnamwlch Farm, milking 1,000 cows for David Wynne-Finch for seven years.”

 

In 2009 at 21 years old, Mr Jackson bought 20 heifer calves of his own. With money from his wages, he later bought and leased out in-calf heifers, in order to retain equity while still having an income, allowing more stock to be purchased. He was then able to build his own numbers up to 220-head by August 2013, funded by his wages and a bank loan of £30,000.


He says: “I was rearing calves on small parcels of land which had poor soil fertility and pasture. Through rotational grazing, it brought the grass back to life.”

In 2013, Mr Wynne-Finch offered Mr Jackson the opportunity to move to the green-field site of Penllech Bach, Tudweiliog just meters from the cliff faces of the Irish Sea, which can be exposed to strong winds of up to 130 miles per hour.


Mr Jackson says: “Mr Wynne-Finch offered me a 50:50 share farming opportunity. He puts in the infrastructure, which initially was just the house and a couple of stone buildings, and I put in the cows. In 2014 we started milking 300 cows which became 350 cows in 2015, and this year we are milking 400.


“This is a high stocking rate for the grazing platform, keeping 4.2 cows to the hectare, but we cut all our winter silage from a neighbour’s ground. We rent the field and apply the fertiliser, then we take two cuts, one after seven weeks for dry cow feed, and the following at five weeks as milking quality silage.

 

Mr Jackson’s kit:

  • Bobcat
  • Straw chopper
  • Massey Furguson 4255
  • Quad bike

“We also make some bales from the grazing platform when there is too much grass and it has lost quality and becomes too much for the cows to graze.”


Mr Jackson says the first thing he did when he took on the farm was sample the soil which showed low indices and an average pH of 5.2. Mr Jackson says as a consequence, he spread 1,000 tonnes of lime over two years.


He says: “I want every recommended level, and more. When we put nitrogen on, we need the best response possible. This is why I think it is so important to have the soil right, so that it is financially efficient.”


Rotational grazing plays a big part in the management of the herd at Penllech Bach. As heifers are reared off-farm by a contractor, all animals are kept in one group and rotated between the farm’s 28 paddocks, averaging 3 ha (7.4 acres).


“Every rotation is followed with 50kg fertiliser per hectare, meaning 21 or 22kg of nitrogen is going on every 18 days,” he says.

“We start grazing on 1 February on a 60 day rotation. We hit magic day, where grass growth exceeds demand, on 4 April and from then on we stick to 18 to 20 day rotations.


“Grass growth is measured weekly from mid-January onwards, cutting and weighing using a quadrant and cutter, to give an indication of growth. It is not a truly accurate, but it is a pretty good guide."


There is continual re-seeding on-farm, with eight per cent of the farm done each year. Aber varieties and ryegrasses are used, at 50:50 tetraploid and diploids with maximum tonnage sought after. Via these methods, Mr Jackson says he gets good utilisation and palatability.


Silage analyses are carried out for Mr Jackson’s own interest, to indicate how much to feed the cows through the dry period. Matthew does not want to supplement his cows’ diets. Instead he wants to improve the grass when it is growing, and act in the field. Neither does he use any silage additives, describing them as just another unnecessary cost. But he has been using cling film type top-sheets on his pit and says significant improvements to quality have been made, with less wastage.


Milking twice a day, the herd are giving 5,500kg per year as third-calvers. Mr Jackson says their production peaks at 26 litres per day and they will give 430kg milk solids per lactation, while being paid on the milk’s cheese making qualities. Mr Jackson says he wants a 500kg animal to produce her live weight in milk solids per lactation.

grazing pic

Heifer rearing

Heifers are reared by a contractor five miles from the farm, they leave at 80kg and return at 22 months old.

 

Heifers are calved at 24 months, when they are 420kg, in the 10 weeks between 1 February and 10th April. All cows are dry between 23 December and 1 February.

Breeding

Fertility is high, and Mr Jackson says last year they had an empty rate of 6 per cent after 10 weeks of mating. In his first year at the farm, they had 12 weeks of service, with an empty rate of 2.5 per cent.


The herd undergoes four weeks of AI, with 85 per cent of cows holding in the first four weeks of service, using LIC semen and technicians. After these four weeks of dairy (Freisian, Jersey or cross-bred) bull semen used, one week of Hereford semen is used.


Mr Jackson wishes to put Aberdeen-Angus sweeper bull on cows which do not hold to AI, but they look very similar to the dairy cross-bred calves, so the Hereford is used as a clear divide between dairy and beef. Angus bulls serve 15 per cent of the herd.


Beef and bull calves leave the farm between seven and ten days old.


Mr Jackson says: “I like the New Zealand types as they are efficient animals and give high quality milk suited for cheese making. They are hardy and lameness is minimal, while also having superb fertility."

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