What a terrific grass-growing season it has been in the UK – the mild, wet winter and early spring brought fast and furious growth that was challenging to manage. Very different from last year when it seemed there would never be enough to graze or cut.
Over recent weeks I have visited some inspiring farms – which have highlighted the opportunities grass offers farmers operating at both ends of the production spectrum.
Some have fully embraced the maximizing production/ha approach – which is helping cut milk production costs and creating a useful buffer against fluctuating market prices.
Others are using grass pastures to produce small quantities of high-quality meat and dairy products, packed with health-promoting goodness that consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for.
Back in April I joined the Nuffield Farming Scholarships dairy tour to Cumbria – a chance to set foot on Steve Brandon and Robert Craig’s 275ha (680 acre), 50:50 partnership in the Eden Valley – a remarkable operation that is replicating the success both achieve with their herds at home.
Their stated aim is to convert grazed grass efficiently into milk solids and liveweight gain. The speed at which they have converted Dolphenby into a fully operational low-cost, grazing dairy unit is incredible.
Since the autumn of 2011, £1.2m has been invested in animals, reseeding, 13km of water ring main, a 40/80 herringbone parlour, 400 new cubicles, 5km of tracks and a one million gallon slurry lagoon.
The herd has been established with heifers from eight different farms – 384 of them calved in February 2012 producing 1.7 million litres. By February this year the herd had risen to 550 cows and heifers – producing 3 million litres of milk for cheese-making.
The youthfulness of the cross-bred herd is very noticeable as you walk amongst them – a group of sprightly young mums, enjoying the high quality grass offered to them at every feed. As the herd matures and less of their energy goes into liveweight gain, Steve and Robert expect their milk yields to increase.
The cows are housed through the winter and were given 950kg of cake last year, and 800kg this year. The target is to feed just 500kg/head/year – with the rest of the diet coming from grazed and conserved grass. Steve reckons they could manage with no cake at all – but need it as insurance against slow grass growth in dry summers on the light sandy land.
The cows start calving in February, with 75% giving birth within six weeks and all done within 12 weeks. They graze from then until late November.
“This is a wonderful grass farm which I tried to get the tenancy for a few years ago,” Robert explained. “Steve and I have a very similar philosophy and goals in life – we both started out many years ago chasing high milk yields, but came to realise the flaws of that system.”
The grass is measured weekly and the data used to plan the rotational grazing system that aims to grow and utilise as much grass as possible.
The cows enter a paddock when there is between 2,800-3,000kg DM/ha growing and eaten down to 1500kg DM/ha. Clover in the grazing swards and slurry applied to silage ground has reduced the need for bought-in fertiliser.
Last year 13t DM/ha of grass was grown across the farm with 10.5t DM/ha utilised for producing milk solids and animal weight gain.
Thanks to Steve and Robert for hosting our visit, and good luck in the forthcoming finals of the Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year Award.
I was fortunate to visit the 2000ha (4,900 acre) family farming business R E Howard, as part of a study tour organised by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association.
The underlying goal of the Howards is to produce healthier food while reducing the reliance and use of chemicals.
There, Max Howard explained how grass and beef cattle are reviving the light, sandy soils that were tiring after many years of intensive arable farming.
He runs 200 native type Aberdeen Angus cows on a low input system which sees both breeding and finishing stock eat nothing but rotational grass, permanent pasture and forage crops. These include forage rape grown after cereals and conserved feeds made from three-year herb-rich leys.
Two thirds of the herd calve in spring and the rest in the autumn, producing finished animals all year at 26 months and averaging 310kg deadweight. The majority are sold through Waitrose via Dovecote Park. The cattle are not fed any cereals or concentrates, and labour and vet and med costs are minimal.
The system is low input/low output with all the cattle out-wintered. While Max admitted the beef enterprise will never make a fortune, he said it also never loses money. More importantly, the cattle are vital for rebuilding soil organic matter and fertility across the farm.
“The key is to get the right animals for the system,” Max advised. “If the breeding is right the cattle will eat the grass and fatten on it, finishing at the right weight and grade for next to nothing. It can be done.”
Interestingly Max is proving his faith in grass farming by going into partnership with a Pembrokeshire dairy farmer. Together they are setting up a low-cost dairy enterprise in the east of Scotland just like Steve and Robert’s!