Productivity from grassland is being maximised on a dairy farm on the north coast of Wales, which is also providing young farmers with an opportunity to expand their businesses through share farming. Katie Jones reports.
An undulating upland farm with land rising to 185 metres above sea level and steep gradients throughout is perhaps not where you would expect to see a spring block calving cross-bred dairy herd grazing a paddock based system.
However this is exactly what is happening at Hendre Llywn Y Maen, Abergele, Conwy.
Here a herd of 440 dairy cows are grazing 150 hectares (370 acres), a third of which is inaccessible with a mower, and are achieving 4,700 litres with 3,000 litres of this being from forage.
Hendre Llywn Y Maen is run on a unique share farming agreement between two businesses: Hendre Milk and Pearson Farming.
Iwan Roberts and Gwydion Jones, who are the Hendre Milk side of the business, are share farming partners who entered into the agreement with the farm’s owner Robin Crossley in 2013 to rent 105ha (260 acres) on a 15-year farm business tenancy. Another 45ha (110 acres) then became available next door, taken on a separate tenancy.
In late 2015 they brought husband and wife Sam and Angharad Pearson (Pearson Farming) into the business on a share milking and contract milking basis.
Pearson Farming supplies the labour requirements for the herd and are responsible for the day-to-day running of the farm.
Mr Roberts and Mr Jones both run their own dairy units nearby where they milk 170 cows.
Mr Roberts says: “Our farms were fairly landlocked at the time, and potential to grow the business at home was limited without complicating the system as we had expanded as much as we could.
“We were looking for more silage ground, but this soon turned into something more and meant we could further our businesses.”
Although a dairy farm in the 1990s, the unit had predominantly been run as a sheep unit. In 2014 dairy conversion began with a 24:48 milking parlour built in the centre of the unit.
This, along with some new tracks, improvements to existing tracks, and the installation of water troughs was needed to accommodate the 300 Friesian cows bought from Ireland to start the business.
Replacements were kept, with numbers creeping up to the 440 being milked currently. It is hoped herd numbers will eventually reach 500, which will see the stocking rate reach 3.3 units per hectare (1.3 per acre).
Mr Roberts explains the soils were in good condition when they started the business, as the landowner had always supplied the land with a lot of inputs.
Some reseeding was done initially and paddocks are reseeded following brassica crops of kale and fodder beet, which act as an insurance policy if grass growth cannot meet demand in summer, but is usually used to out-winter stock.
Cows go straight out to grass after they calve, with calving starting on February 15.
Mr Pearson says: “We used to start calving on February 1, but we found it was too early, grass regrowth was not there for the second grazing rotation, meaning milking cows were having to be fed silage, so we have pushed this forward two weeks and the last two years have been better.”
Buffer feed is offered if spring grass growth is poor and some concentrate is fed right through lactation in the parlour.
Grass growth is monitored through weekly plate metering and measurements are logged on AgriNet.
Mr Pearson and the two other full-time members of staff, Geraint Jones and Callum Roberts, use a phone app to work out how paddocks need to be split to give cows the right size grazing allocation for a 12-hour period.
The simple rotational block grazing system sees cows go in when covers are about 2,800-3,000kg DM/ha (1,133-1,214kg DM/acre), with cows grazing down to 1,500-1,550kg DM/ha (607-627kg DM/acre).
This year’s late spring and recent good weather has meant there has been a massive peak in grass growth. Mr Pearson says they have silaged the mowable paddocks which had gone ahead of grazing and they are also having to ‘pre-mow’ some of the paddocks to achieve an acceptable residual to ensure quality later in summer.
He says: “We do not really want to be pre-mowing, but it is a way of fire brigading the situation we are in due to recent grass growth levels.”
This year the herd has been split into two grazing groups; one of heifers, poorer performing or under conditioned cows, and the remainder of the herd in the other. Paddocks have been designated to each group.
The average yield is 4,750kg and, with milk going to Arla for manufacturing, milk solids are highly prized.
Mr Pearson says: “We are aiming to have our cows producing the equivalent of their own bodyweight in milk solids each year. At the moment the cows are 480-500kg in bodyweight, and we are bringing this down to 450-480kg with the introduction of more Jersey genetics.
”Last year we averaged 369kg milk solids and we find benchmarking with our discussion group is a fantastic way to set targets and plan a route to achieving them.”
At the shoulders of the season, the cows walk considerable distances to the paddocks following the twice-a-day milking. The furthest point on the farm is 1.5 miles, but steep gradients also play a part in making the long-term production target a challenge for the team.
Mr Roberts says: “We did consider going to once-a-day milking, but it did not stack up financially for us.”
As well as the summer grazing, the team is also aiming to make good quality clamp silage for winter feed during the dry period.
Mr Pearson says: “Dry cow management really sets the cows up for the following lactation. We saw this two years ago when we were having to feed poorer quality feed than we would usually like, and the cows did not perform as well in terms of production.”
Drying off starts at the beginning of December, with any cows with a body condition score (BCS) of 2.5 or less dried off first. Dry cows are fed clamp silage, which is made on silage ground away from the main unit.
Some years a group is out-wintered on brassica crops or deferred grass with bales.
Cows are condition scored at drying off with the target being 3.5 BCS, which they are expected to maintain through winter.
As calving approaches the cows are kept in outdoor cubicles or loose-housed yards before being moved to a calving box when they are close to calving.
Calves stay at the farm for 10-12 weeks, or until they double their birth weight and are eating a kilo of cake per day.
They then go to another unit for rearing, coming back to the milking unit a month before calving.
“We use artificial insemination on all our heifers for three weeks and then run Jersey or Jersey cross bulls with them,” explains Mr Pearson. Cows have six weeks of AI before sweeper bulls are introduced.
All cows have a pre-breeding fertility check and anything with metritis is presented for a pre-breeding vet check. Any cows not served after 24 days of breeding are also presented for a vet check, with 17 getting intervention (CIDR synchronisation) this year.
Visit the farm
The farm is hosting a Germinal grassland management and reseeding day on July 10. This will look at soil management, reseeding methods, rotational grazing, using the recommended grass and clover list, and brassica break crops. To register your place, contact Chloe Green at Germinal GB on 01522 868714 or email on firstname.lastname@example.org