Spot Acre Farm is best known for the ‘millionaire sire’ Picston Shottle but the business’ has now switched focus from showing cattle to soil health. Chloe Palmer reports.
High genetic quality cows are the hallmark of the Picston herd, including many of the original cow families related to Picston Shottle. But now the focus at Spot Acre Farm has switched to quality forage and soil health as the key to improving herd performance.
Jonathan Pickford, who farms in partnership with his brother James and mother Helen, says: “For us it is all about sustainable farming. The soil is an asset which we must try and make the most of as this grows the forage providing 70 per cent of each cow’s nutrition.”
Mr Pickford’s father was passionate about pedigree breeding and while this love of cows has clearly passed onto his two sons, recognition of the financial realities of dairying in the 21st century started the shift away from showing and pedigree sales.
“We realised we had to expand numbers and we are now seeking ‘functional cows’ which perform in the commercial herd,” he says.
A chance meeting with David Lievesley during a trip to Holland was to be the start of a new journey for Spot Acre Farm.
Now the farm’s herd manager, Mr Lievesley says: “I was working for a feed company but I was beginning to question the sense of giving cows more concentrate rather than feeding the best possible forage as the key element of the ration.
“It seemed to me many of the problems I was seeing in dairy herds, such as poor fertility, lameness and twisted guts, were down to poor rumen health as a result of feeding poor quality forage.”
Around the same time, Mr Pickford was becoming aware his cows’ forage intake was insufficient.
He says: “The cows were not keen to graze so we tried silaging grass to improve palatability.
“We eventually discovered it was the conventional farming techniques, such as cultivations, ammonium nitrate, the use of fungicides and monocultures, which were damaging our soils. In turn, this reduced the quality of our forage and adversely impacted on the health of our cows.”
The growing realisation the soils at Spot Acre Farm held some of the answers to their problems led to a programme of whole farm soil sampling. A broad spectrum analysis identified the levels of all the main nutrients, plus calcium and sulphur but also trace elements including selenium and iron.
Mr Lievesley says: “Soil should contain 60 per cent calcium and 20 per cent magnesium but the analysis showed the levels here were the wrong way round. The soils were lying wet, difficult to work and then in summer they dried out quickly.”
Mr Pickford says: “Our soils are naturally high in magnesium and the potash index is high. The soil analysis showed high iron levels and this was bringing its own problems too.”
Mr Pickford points to the amount of calcium carried out the farmgate in the milk tanker each day and the need to replace this in the cow’s diet. A change in fertiliser practice is now beginning to address this.
He says: “We are now applying calcium ammonium nitrate with added selenium to the grassland and we are already seeing a massive difference. We are starting to build gypsum into the fertiliser budget to further reduce the magnesium index and improve the calcium to magnesium ratio.”
Mr Lievesley believes achieving the right balance of amino acids in the protein included in the forage ration is vital for rumen health. More legume crops are now grown on part of a large block of owned land near Stafford Showground.
Mr Pickford says: “Growing legumes such as lucerne and red clover over the last six years has clearly shown the benefits of the nitrogen fixing capacity of these plants.”
The lucerne, grass silage and red clover leys are cut and conserved as separate layers in the silage clamp and the results are impressive.
Maize is grown at Stafford but Mr Pickford plans to switch from the crop to more clover-based leys and lucerne in the future.
He says: “Maize is a good feed for cows but when I look at the maize field I can see we have damaged the soil and lost too much because of erosion. If we wish to continue to grow maize, we will need to find a way of establishing a companion crop to provide green cover over winter.”
Home-grown oats are a relatively new addition to the diet and favoured for their deep rooting and low nitrogen requirement. This year he trialled direct drilling on one field of oats.
Mr Pickford says: “We decided to use a Claydon drill to drill directly into stubbles. We were prepared to fail but it is one of the best fields of oats we have. We will feed it wholecrop as part of the ration.
“We are looking at zero tillage as this will help us retain root structure and, alongside a reduction in artificial fertiliser use, it will enable us to increase carbon levels which have been depleted in soil.”
Mr Lievesley’s nutritional expertise means advice is at hand to ensure milk from forage is maximised and the concentrate component of the ration is carefully thought out.
He says: “The home-grown component of the total mixed ration equates to 24 litres of milk produced and then we feed a bespoke concentrate through the parlour which includes soya and maize meal. I select the best quality ingredients for the small amount of concentrate we feed.”
Now Mr Pickford is delighted to see his cows grazing more enthusiastically and as forage is now fundamental in the diet, this has influenced the choice of genetics for breeding replacements.
He says: “We are looking for a cow with a lower stature but without compromising body depth. We want a multi-purpose animal which can graze and consume and convert large quantities of forage to milk.
He believes the Holstein has received some unfair press but they now have a cow which suits their system, performs well and lasts.
“We have many cows in the herd which are on their seventh and eighth lactations, and cows are averaging almost five lactations now. Longevity is key for us,” Mr Pickford adds.
The change in strategy has already paid dividends in relation to fertility and wider herd health.
“We are achieving 60 per cent conception to first service using sexed semen in the heifers and the herd average is 42 per cent.
We have almost eradicated many of the lameness problems we were experiencing.”
Enthused by their progress they have made so far, Mr Pickford firmly believes their approach will continue to pay dividends.
“We view crop diversity as key to increasing our soil biology. Increasing the root structure by including deeper rooting plants in our rotation will produce more nutritional forage and we will see healthier cows.
“We want to be less reliant on fertiliser and crop protection chemicals as we must use them more responsibly before nature renders them useless.”