Shifting to a multi-cut system three years ago made sense for one Shropshire-based dairy herd, which has a focus on producing as much milk from forage as possible, meaning quality is key.
Overseen by farm manager Colin Bowen, Longden Manor Farm, Plealey, Shropshire, changed to multi cut from a three-cut system in 2016, which also coincided with a move back into organic production around the same time.
The farm is working on the basis of five cuts per season, beginning around April 20, achieving growth rates of 70-80kg dry matter (DM) per day over the season and aiming for a 28-30 day interval between cuts.
Total yields off silage ground were 7.5 tonnes per hectare (3t/acre) last year but taking the drought conditions into account, Mr Bowen says these are usually around 9-10t/hectare (3.6-4t/acre).
“We will cut an initial silage block of 97ha for first and second cut, but this could be two blocks of 49ha if one part of the farm is a week to 10 days ahead of the rest, which does happen, and from third cut onwards silage is made around the requirements of the grazing block.”
The farm has used the same seed mixtures for several years, only adding in additional red clover leys following the decision to convert back into organic production.
It has also invested in an umbilical system for slurry application, which will follow paddocks two to three days after grazing, using dirty water from the farm’s slurry separator.
With cow tracks now in place, cows will be on a rotational paddock system on 12-hour shifts after turnout, which are about 3ha (eight acres) in size, based on the270-head herd size, although this will change with plans to up numbers to 300 by this time next year.
Mr Bowen says: “We have fields which have been in grass for several years and do not routinely reseed, which we put down to regular shifts and regular cutting.
“This would not suit every system but we have found managing the grass on the paddock system leaves little room for weed grasses to come through.
“As the season goes on and growth rates drop, we will extend the grazing block into the silage block. We are not in the business of having separate silage and grazing fields, but instead looking at how much grazing is needed for the cows.
“Every kilo of milk produced from grazed grass is more profitable than what we get from forage stocks, so the priority is grazing and we make silage around that.”
“But in a situation where paddocks get ahead of the cows, grass is cut – even if this is just one paddock of eight acres.”
Chop length at harvest is about 6-7cm with the intention of keeping stubble heights high.
“We cut high because we want a leafy mix without stems in the silage, but also to promote regrowth and to avoid introducing contamination into the silage, for example soil.
“We have always raked and avoided tedding in the past but we are planning on both this year now there are more red clover leys in, certainly at first and second cut, to speed up the wilting process and improve silage quality.
“At third and fourth cut this may not be the case as conditions will be drier and the higher stubble heights mean we can do this without getting so close to the ground.”
Harvesting is all done using forage wagons, two of which Mr Bowen now runs as part of a fleet in his contracting business (Bowen Contracting) which he runs in conjunction with his role at Longden.
“We bought the first forage wagon eight years ago and the second in 2016. As a contractor, this means we can move away from competing on price to selling on quality instead.
“The forage wagons produce a good quality product which holds well in the gut as we are careful not to over chop in the total mixed ration [TMR]. We are also finding that less effluent is produced on the multi-cut as, at chopping, moisture bleeds from every cut end.
“Criticism we have faced is that the forage wagons cannot get grass in as quickly as other methods, but there tends not to be huge tonnages to clear on this system and with two running now we can clear 57ha in a day.”
Mr Bowen charges the forage wagons at £107 per hour plus diesel, with other operations billed by the acre.
Although Longden is a major customer of Bowen Contracting, he says the same principles apply in terms of keeping an eye on contracting costs and, to justify these as a farm manager, the farm’s kit will always be used where possible for tasks such as mowing and raking, rather than billing all of the work to Bowen Contracting.
The clamp is filled to full length in level layers so there is consistent feed quality throughout the season, with a ramp tractor and front mounted buckrake plus a rolling tractor working on alternate sides.
Side walls are lined with heavy black sheet and cling film, with cling and a black sheet used to cover the clamp plus a secure cover and silo seal mats. Silage is averaging 28-30 per cent DM in the clamp.
Anything higher than 30 per cent DM can make the ration too dry when combined with other parts of the TMR, he explains, which can reduce intakes because of poor palatability.
An additive is added at each cut to ensure quality and minimise losses.
“Numerous people say we do a good enough job with the quality of grass we have and the way it is ensiled to get away without using an additive.
“But with multiple studies showing the increased feed value and reduced losses in the clamp as a result of using it, investing in it is justifiable for us.
“I would not be confident walking away from using it as we cannot afford the loss in feed value.”
With herd numbers on the up, projected annual yields are forecast in the region of 8,500-9,500 litres, aiming for 30 per cent of this to be from forage from the crossbred herd of mainly British Frisian cross Holsteins, alongside Montbeliarde and some recently bought-in Scandinavian red heifer replacements.
Mr Bowen says he is confident this can be achieved, having recently taken on a new farm manager who, in pursuit of this, has made changes to improve herd consistencies around milking and feeding routines as well as herd health protocols.
“The smaller framed 650-700kg Friesian cross Holstein cross cows work well on the grass-based system.
“They are generally better on their feet with shorter legs which give them a better ability to walk to paddocks.”