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Quick off the grid to take Grass Prix award

To make best use of his grassland, Northern Ireland producer David Murphy has gone in for zero grazing and four cuts of silage – all of which helped him win the Yara Grass Prix award last year. Richard Halleron reports.

Mr Murphy’s first cut had an average ME of 11.2 MJ and dry matter of 28%.
Mr Murphy’s first cut had an average ME of 11.2 MJ and dry matter of 28%.

The beginning of February marks the start of the new grassland year for Co Armagh dairy farmer David Murphy.


He says: “Technically, this is the first date on which we can actually get slurry out on to the land.


“Rainfall levels in Northern Ireland are almost twice those recorded in many other parts of the UK, but a combination of flotation tyres and a dribble bar system allows me to get slurry out on to the drier parts of the farm almost as soon as the spreading ban is lifted at the end of January.


“The entire farm is sown out in long-term leys. Objective number one each year is to get 3500 gallons of slurry spread on each available acre as soon as weather conditions permit,” he explains.


David milks 350 autumncalving Holstein-Friesian cows with his father Ian and his two brothers Daniel and Matthew. David seized the Yara prize by beating mainland competition by generating the most energy from the first two cuts of silage.

“We specifically chose an autumn calving pattern so as to allow us to meet this objective,” David explains.


“We have always recognised the benefits of getting fresh grass into cow diets – hence our decision to go zero grazing three years ago,” he says.


“Putting 300-plus cows into grass paddocks at the beginning of March is not a feasible option in this part of the world.


“Most of the farm is one block. Essentially, we manage the entire grassland area in the same way. Four cuts of silage are taken annually. But, in most years, we start to include fresh grass as the main forage source for the cows from the middle of March onwards.


The Murphy herd is currently averaging 9000 litres at 4.1% butterfat and 3.15% protein, with about 2.1 tonnes of concentrates being fed per cow. The milk is supplied to the local Linwood company for the liquid market. Maximising milk output from grass and silage is the key driver for the business.


“By that stage most cows are back in calf. All fresh calvers are fed a standard silagebased TMR until they have passed the point of peak milk output. Thereafter, fresh grass is phased into the diet over a two-week period. Cows are then fed to yield with nuts in the parlour. “Last year, we were able to zero graze the cows well into November,” he adds.


David uses a Strautman forage wagon to pick up the fresh grass and this cuts it to a length of 4cm.


“The grass is mown around noon every day throughout the grazing season,” he says. “The wagon picks up fresh forage, which is then put directly in front of the cows in the cubicle house.


“Zero grazing allows us to make best use of all the grass grown on the farm.”


David’s overall approach to grassland management reflects the latest thinking on the subject and the family’s in-depth knowledge of what works best on their own farm.


“We reseed most areas of the farm every seven years,” he says. “Soil testing is carried out on a routine basis. Our aim is to maintain pH levels above 6.0 at all times. Fertiliser applications, including slurry, are based on soil test results only.

David Murphy is looking to maximise output from grass and silage.

“There is a slurry separator on farm, which we use during spring and summer months. This allows us to spread the liquor on land previously cut for silage. Slurry solids are ploughed in as part of preparation for autumn reseeding work.


“Each slurry tank on the farm has a connecting pipe. Gravity allows the slurry to flow into an above ground store, which is located at the bottom of the main yard.”


Last year saw David introduce two new dimensions to the traditional fertiliser application policies followed on farm.“In early March we spread one-anda- half tonnes of gypsum per acre,” he says. “And in tandem with that we put out 150kg of salt per acre. Gypsum is an important source of calcium, which both benefits the soil and cows. We sourced the product from a local recycling company. Ground limestone is always applied to ground destined for reseeding.

Importance of Salt

“Salt sweetens the grass, which helps improve forage intakes. It’s too early to say if these additions made a significant difference last year as far as cow performance was concerned. The reality is that 2015 was one of the best grass growing years in this part of the world.


“But we are open minded when it comes to tweaking our grassland management practices, if it means we can improve the overall performance of the business.”


David takes four cuts of silage each year, starting in early May and following on every six weeks thereafter.


“The key benefit of the Strautman wagon is it can double up for both zero grazing and silage-making operations,” he says.


“Weather permitting, we strive for a 24 wilt before ensiling. The key to making top quality silage is good pit management. For this reason we have plenty of people on hand so as to ensure the clamp is rolled continuously throughout the entire silage-making process.


“If possible, we will commit to doing all the work ourselves, but a local contractor will be called in to help out, if and when required.


“Last year’s first cut had an average ME of 11.2 MJ and a dry matter of 28%.”

Image: David and Daniel

David Murphy (pictured with Daniel McGuckin who helps out on the farm after school and at weekends) says a combination of flotation tyres and a dribble bar system allows him to get slurry on to drier parts of the farm as soon as the spreading ban is lifted at the end of January.

Looking ahead, David says the family will not be upping cow numbers beyond those currently on farm. “We have increased the size of the business significantly over recent years – now it’s time to consolidate.


“We put tremendous emphasis on breeding herd replacements which can efficiently produce large quantities of milk from forage.


“The last 12 months have seen the milk price drop alarmingly, and the market outlook is not bright.”


Currently faced with a milk price of around 20ppl, he adds: “As a family, we are totally committed to dairy farming, but we still need a price of about 27ppl to make ends meet. At that level of return there is a livelihood in milk production for everyone.


“We recognise now, more than ever, every management decision on the farm must be justified.


“Here in Northern Ireland, grass will always be our cheapest and most efficient feed source for cows. The key challenge ahead is to make best use of this resource. And it’s a two-step process which entails growing more grass in the first instance and then utilising the forage which is produced in the most efficient way possible.


“A combination of zero grazing and making best use of slurry is helping us meet both objectives. Last year was one of the best growing seasons in living memory. Most dairy farmers in Northern Ireland were able to produce significant volumes of high quality milk throughout the autumn months from grazed grass,” he says.


“Grass is everything,” says David, “and ME is most important. Making up the difference for poor quality grass could mean feeding an extra 3kg of meal per cow per day, which over the whole herd would add up to an extra £6300 per month in feed costs.”

Grass Prix analysis

The Murphys forged ahead in the 2015 Yara Grass Prix at the first cut stage. The average dry matter yield was 9.2t/ha and this forage had an energy content of 100,453MJ/ha.


With a further 102,697 MJ/ha to add from his second cut, the Murphys won the overall competition with a total of 203,150MJ/ha, which is estimated to be worth £2281/ha in concentrate equivalent terms.


In second place was previous winner Willie Watson, Mauchline, Ayrshire, with 181,418 MJ/ha. In third place were Alan and David Wallace, County Antrim, with 175,006 MJ/ha. (See Table 1).


Nutrient planning


Nutrient planning with fertiliser applications (as shown for the top three) balanced to satisfy nutrient requirements once slurry applications have taken place. (See Table 2).


Compared to buying-in the same amount ME in compound feeds, David Murphy’s winning total of 203,150MJ/ha gives him a value of £2281/ha, having spent £185 on fertiliser. This compares favourably to the average UK farm business, which spent £160 per/ha and achieved £1288/ha.


David spent an extra £25/ha on fertiliser and achieved an extra £993/ha compared to ‘national’ averages, and the top three spent on average an extra £15/ha and achieved an extra £762.

Table 1


Fresh weight


Fresh weight


Dry matter






(t/ha) (t/acre) (t/ha) (kg/ha) (MJ/ha)
David and Ian Murphy 45.8 (18.7) 18.7 2,680 203,150
Willie Watson 42.0 (17.1) 17.5 2,149 181,418
Alan and David Wallace 34.9 (14.3) 15.4 1,625 175,006
UK and Ireland average 39.2 (16.0) 10.5 1,521 123,174

Table 2

Fertiliser application for top three growers

Grass Prix winner

David Murphy

Grass Prix top

three average

N 167kg/ha 158kg
P205 25kg 16kg
K2O 25kg 49kg
SO3 62kg 48kg
Total spend £185/ha £175/ha
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