Like many grassland farmers around the UK, Profit from Grass farmer Tim Phipps is working hard to ensure his grassland has sufficient time to recover ahead of the autumn months.
After a dry spell spanning mid-July to mid-August a portion of Tim Phipps’ 100-cow suckler herd at Bragborough Hall, near Daventry, is being buffer fed hay while being denied access to some grazing paddocks in a bid to allow covers to recover ahead of autumn.
He says: “Grass growth on poorer ground dwindled to almost nothing which was a concern as the wet weather others experienced seemed to by-pass the farm. Once the rain returned, nitrogen was applied at 30kg/hectare across some of the grazing area in a bid to kick-start growth with the aim of having some cover going into autumn.
“Our main issue here at Bragborough is the poor state of some soils after a prolonged period of fallow. Soil organic matter is very low in some fields leading to poor moisture retention; a matter not helped by poor sward density.”
Improvement will come from targeted use of farmyard manure, but this has been used on arable land this season as a priority to help support yields across 57ha (140 acres) of cereal and 57ha (140 acres) of oilseed. This year’s harvest netted 7.5 tonnes/ha and 3.4t/ha, respectively. The 57ha (140 acres) wheat harvest is imminent, he adds.
“Our grassland will be soil sampled for N, P and K in autumn and any low indices will be corrected in spring,” he says. But grass is needed now as heifers and cows are well into the service period. Fortunately there appears to be few returns to date, he adds.
To take some pressure off the first-calvers in the herd, calves are being offered a pelleted wheat feed straight at 17 per cent protein and 25 per cent starch. “It appears to be working well. Calves will be weighed in late August and at weaning, with the aim of having sufficient fresh grass in front of them to avoid a check in growth rate while aiming for 1.2kg/day growth.”
Ironic as it may appear 6ha (15 acres) of silage ley has been sprayed off with glyphosate and will be put back into the arable rotation growing winter barley.
“Our challenge is that Bragborough is still under-stocked. Even if we work on a stocking rate of a cow/acre then we have surplus grassland.
“The aim long-term is to get suckler numbers up from 100-head to nearer 180 over the next few years. This year we will increase numbers by retaining most heifer calves, although this effectively reduces output from the herd as we have less animals to rear and sell,” says Mr Phipps.
Having returned recently from a visit to cattle breeding units and feedlots in America – where the majority of stock are black-hided in origin due to a premium for black cattle – he is convinced the Stabiliser route is best for Bragborough’s long-term future.
“It was a brilliant trip with some valuable lessons learnt, and it was interesting to see practices which will not be so transferable to the UK.
“US finishers are paid both on carcase yield and eating quality of the beef – the level of intramuscular fat is a key to eating quality. That is driven by selective breeding and choice of diet allowing efficient converters to lay down fat when offered a diet which exceeds the need for both maintenance and daily weight gain.
“In that respect I believe the use of Stabiliser genetics is right for us. Having sufficient grass up to weaning to avoid a check in growth will help ensure bulls destined for finishing at around 12 months old achieve their potential.”
The challenge with grass is it does not always grow when you want it to, says Dr Liz Genever, senior scientist at AHDB Beef and Lamb
“This has been illustrated by Tim Phipps’ experience this year, when he had too much grass early on and is now buffer feeding.
“Some of the issues Tim has are driven by the loss of control earlier in the year, with the old adage of one seed head costs 10 leaves,” says Dr Genever.
“However, it is important not to dwell on the past and try to improve going forward.
“Tim’s decision to buffer graze and creep feed the calves of first-calvers is helping the pasture recover, as rotations need to be reduced as grass growth slows. On a positive note, fields have been grazed well, so once rested, fed and watered they should produce high-quality feed.”
Dr Genever agrees a focus on soil health is needed in order to establish resilient grassland systems.
“Organic matter should not be an issue in well-managed grass-based systems, but Tim’s fields will need additional work to help with recovery from the previous prolonged periods of fallow.”
Organic matter provides energy for the organisms which live in the soil, aids regulation of soil moisture and helps soil structure.
“There is a significant amount of evidence to say well-managed grazing will help accumulate organic matter and carbon over time, but Tim may feel he needs to boost certain fields with manure applications” explains Dr Genever.
“Autumn is the perfect time to assess soils for structural issues and to collect samples for soil tests. Sample when the topsoil is moist for an accurate assessment, or compaction may be mistaken for dry soils.”
Soil samples should be taken at least two months after the last application of manure, fertiliser or lime to ensure the soil has had chance to adjust.
“In the future, Tim may want to consider including other plant types, for example timothy, cocksfoot, festulolium, chicory, plantain and clovers into new mixtures to try and provide more growth in drier spells. There are some downsides to this, such as potentially lower-quality feed and less options for winter grazing, but they are worth considering, especially for farms in drier areas.”
AHDB Beef and Lamb is involved in a large industry partnership called SUREROOT, which is researching how the root architecture of grasses can be altered by breeding techniques. An additional aim is to see whether the improved rooting structure can modify soil and help reduce the impact of flooding and drought. More information can be found at sureroot.uk
AHDB Beef and Lamb, with Germinal GB, is setting up a trial with Sam and Charlotte Clarke, in Oxfordshire, looking at the benefit of multi-species swards in an arable rotation for lamb production and soil health. More information will be available next year.