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Profit from grass: Challenges ahead for 2016 farmers

The Profit from Grass series continues...
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This year we will follow four new grazing enthusiasts from around the UK for our Profit From Grass 2016 series to see how they fare with a range of challenges and opportunities. Simon Wragg provides an insight into each of their farming businesses.

Freddie Lawder, Dynamic Dairying, near Beaulieu, Hampshire

Despite gently undulating farmland bordering beaches near Beaulieu, Hampshire, summer can be anything but pleasurable for Freddie Lawder, the day-to-day manager at Dynamic Dairying.

The contract farming business, owned by Tom Mitchell, runs 320 cows of mixed genetics at Park Farm.

Mr Lawder says: “The unit was run intensively until 2013, with Holstein and Montbeliarde cross cows calving throughout the year. But the ground can burn up here like crazy in summer, as we have just 25 inches of rainfall annually.

“Today, the emphasis is on autumn-calving from late August to late November, with British Friesian and Kiwi cross genetics diluting the original make-up. It is a slightly mongrel herd at the moment, but we are moving towards a more compact, fertile grazing animal.”

The herd was cubicle housed over winter and managed on a self-feed system of grass and maize silage. Labour use is targeted at three staff plus a relief milker.

Turnout came in late February. Mr Lawder says: “The grazing platform is 150 hectares with a further support block of 100ha a short distance away. There, we grow 60ha of maize and run youngstock ahead of shutting up ground for silage.”

The unit has a mix of concrete and dirt tracks which are being improved each year.

He adds: “Our biggest challenge now is improving the general infrastructure, such as correct watertrough placement, and improving access to mains-powered fencing.

“Our aim is to allocate cows two fresh areas of grass daily. They are milked in a recently installed 40/80 swing-over parlour, getting concentrate at a flat rate. Our milk is sold to Arla.”

A concentrate feed rate of 1.4 tonnes/cow/year may appear high. However, this included interlacing rape meal in with maize silage and wheat feed in grass silage, plus additional palm kernel and brewers’ grains due to lower than expected forage yields.

Mr Lawder says: “Currently, 59 per cent of the 7,100-litre average yield comes from forage and the long-term aim is high at 70 per cent.”

Tim Phipps, Bragborough Hall, Daventry, Northamptonshire

Continuing to get to grips with a much larger acreage of grassland in poor state is Tim Phipps’ challenge for this season, having moved with his family to 320-hectare (790-acre) Bragborough Hall, near Daventry, Northamptonshire, from a smaller family farm outside Bicester.

He says: “We moved in 2012 from light brash soils which burn up in summer at Bicester, to wetter, heavier clay soils here at Bragborough.”

Grassland and fencing were in a poor state as the farm had been let by proxy by land agents for a number of years.

“We are improving infrastructure as we go along. Fortunately, 180ha of our arable ground is managed in a contract farming agreement alongside a capable local farmer which reduces our workload.”

The farm is in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone and tied into an Entry Level Stewardship scheme. Stocking is focused on a rapidly expanding 100-cow herd of sucklers which calves down from March.

“Like the grassland, our beef herd is in a period of transition from a number of continental breeds to the Stabiliser breed.

“Heifer calves are retained as we expand numbers to help utilise grassland. Bulls are left entire and finished intensively indoors to 320-370kg liveweight at 13 months old for Morrisons’ yearling beef scheme.”

Grassland management is straightforward, with stock being moved every 10 days to fresh ground. This schedule will shorten as grassland improves, with a reseeding programme planned.

To help Tim and his father Geoff improve their grassland management, they have been teamed up with a mentor – Matt Pilkington of Church Farm, Barby, Warwickshire – through the AHDB Beef and Lamb initiative ‘grass for beef’.

Tim says: “We are aware a lot of improvements need to be made to grazing which also includes areas of ridge and furrow and parkland. The challenge is to make progress while managing the expansion in herd size.”

Paul Boulden, Court Lodge Farm, Ashford, Kent

Paul Boulden runs 1,100 Romney and 70 Merino sheep, plus 95 continental-bred suckler cows as part of a large arable unit covering 1,300 hectares (3,210 acres) at Court Lodge Farm, Aldington, overlooking Romney Marsh, near Ashford, Kent.

He says: “My challenge this year will be to have sufficient good quality grazing for the early born lambs in April after a slow, cold start.”

About 80 per cent of Romney ewes are pure-bred and began lambing in late March. About 75 per cent of lambs will be sold from September onwards as stores through Ashford market having been reared off grass alone.

The remainder, which are mainly ewe lambs, are carried over winter on 30ha (74 acres) of stubble turnips and 100ha (247 acres) of silage aftermath depending on market prospects.

He says: “As with most of farming, you have to be flexible.”

The sheep flock, of which a proportion of Romney wool is marketed by Paul’s wife Kristina, also shares an area of 200ha (494 acres) of permanent pasture on the marsh itself, with largely Blonde-bred sucklers during late spring and summer.

Each year’s calf crop is weaned and reared intensively on cereals, beans and grass silage, with the aim of being sold through Ashford market as prime cattle at between 18-24 months old.

Mr Boulden says: “Due to a lack of storage, we are completely reliant on either round baled silage, which costs a fortune, or big square bale hay for winter forage.

“Ewes and lambs take priority at the start of the grazing season as we only have about 100ha of improved grassland. The rest is permanent pasture or marsh.”

The unit is run with two full-time staff and there are 1,000ha (2,471 acres) of crops, including winter and spring-sown cereals, oats and oilseed rape, winter and spring beans, and spring peas.

Mr Boulden says: “My aunt Virginia helps out with sheep. The only other specifics we have is Father does not do sheep and I do not go near the sprayer for arable crops.”

George Brown, Cairnhead Farm, Ainstable, Cumbria

An increase in cow numbers to about 430 head will be among this grazing season’s challenges for George Brown, who manages the Craig family’s established spring-calving, low-input dairy unit at Cairnhead Farm, Ainstable, Cumbria.

The largely New Zealand Friesian cross cows have about 25 per cent Jersey genetics, suited to the 213-hectare (526-acre) unit, which includes a grazing platform of 135ha (334 acres).

Mr Brown says: “The platform covers an area of gently undulating ground being half wet and half dry, so offers the best of both worlds.”

The unit has good infrastructure with sleeper and stone tracks, accessing a network of about 35 paddocks.

He says: “Our aim is to give the herd two 12-hour breaks of fresh grass each day.

“Currently, the herd is allocated 1.5ha/day and our average cover is 1,860kg DM/ha. The first rotation takes about 70 days, but falls quickly to 20 days by late April.”

Milk is sold to Nestle at Dalston for processing with payment geared to constituent content, currently 8.6 per cent solids.


Mr Brown says: “We need quality grazing and have already applied a sulphur-rich nitrogen-based fertiliser at 150kg/ha across the whole farm.

“Grass growth has been slow, with daily increases in covers remaining in single figures to late March. Last season, the farm produced 14.4 tonnes/ha off the grazing platform; a target we hope to beat.”

This helped support an average yield of 6,000 litres/cow off just 1,080kg of concentrate/cow.

The herd is milked in a 24/48 swing-over herringbone parlour. The unit is run with one other full-time and two part-time staff members.

Mr Brown says: “My goals for this season are managing grass for quality, getting good six-week in-calf rates after service and good early weight gain in youngstock, enabling them to mate at 15 months.”

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