The importance of good grassland management and its impact on cow productivity is often overlooked, but one Cheshire farmer is making it a priority, and seeing improvements in milk yields as a result.
“Grass is very important to our farm. It’s the cheapest form of feed available for our cows, and therefore the most cost-effective way to produce our milk,” says Alastair Cliff, who, along with his wife Gill and their two children, milks 470 cows across two tenant farms on Bolesworth Estate, in Cheshire.
“Having started on a council farm 20 years ago, we took over the tenancy at Burwardsley Hall 12 years ago, followed by Bank Head Farm five years later. Having run them as two separate calving herds; one autumn calving and the other spring calving, my herd manager, James Williamson and I, have recently decided to move them both to autumn calving starting in 2018.
“This will simplify the system and allow us to take the pressure off the pastures, as both farms are on very dry land,” explains Mr Cliff.
Together the farms consist of 265 hectares of grassland, and cows are grazed throughout the summer months.
They milk twice a day on both farms through two herringbone parlours, with the herd currently producing on average 7,000L/cow, with 3,500L/cow coming from forage.
“We’re continually striving to increase our litres in the tank, and are aiming to have 4,000L/cow from forage within the next 12 months, having previously been at this level.
“We take three to four cuts of silage each year, which is fed with a blend to our cows, so we rely heavily on our grass to achieve maximum milk outputs.”
“We have found that the time, effort and investment that we put into reseeding and closely monitoring and measuring our grassland is being repaid through milk outputs, so grass remains the priority for us going forward,” says Mr Cliff.
“We reseed 10% to 12% of the grassland each year, across the two farms. Fields are either reseeded grass to grass, or grass followed by stubble turnips and then back to grass if we feel the field needs a rest from grazing or silage production.
“When choosing mixtures to reseed with, I like to consult with Wynnstay who can provide advice on which mixes would best suit the farm needs.”
Adam Simper, grass and root seed product manager and sales specialist, Sarah-Jane Baldwin, have aided Mr Cliff for a number of years, and Mr Simper explains that it is great to see a farm take such a keen interest in their grassland management.
“Alastair and his team definitely realise the positive impact that reseeding can have on forage production,” says Mr Simper.
“Reseeding the leys in both spring and autumn, means that it can fit in with the grazing of the milking herd, so they’re not losing out on production.
“Alastair likes to use a mixture based on high-sugar grasses,” he explains.
“This year, he opted for a cut and graze mix with no clover, which is a flexible mixture that will provide two quality cuts of silage, as well as a quality aftermath grazing.
“A blend of Intermediate perennial ryegrasses and late perennial ryegrasses work well with the impending changes to the calving system. The Intermediates will provide growth early in the spring, ready for grazing, and the late ryegrasses will provide longevity in the ley from growing later in to the season.”
Mr Cliff adds that they also soil sample all the year round to ensure there are sufficient nutrients available. “As a rule of thumb, we apply 113kg/ha of Singletop fertiliser on each field following the grazing rotation.
“Slurry is applied to the silage-making fields, whereas the grazing fields received an application of dirty water once the cows have moved onto the next ley. The dirty water is a waste product of the slurry, and is generally less than 3% dry matter. This means that it’s absorbed into the soil at a faster rate than slurry, so we can keep a tight grazing rotation to efficiently use all the fields.”
Monitoring grass performance
Mr Cliff explains that his cows are out by mid-February through to when AI begins in mid- November, weather depending.
“We like to have the cows out at grass for as long as possible, so monitoring pastures and accurate measuring with a grass plate meter throughout the grazing season is a vital part of our weekly management regime.”
At this year’s Grassland and Muck event, Alastair won a Farmworks F200 Plate Meter from Agri Supply Services, through a competition on the Wynnstay stand.
“The plate meter been a great addition to our kit,” he says. “We have always measured each field weekly, historically using an old sward plate meter throughout the grazing season. But, this new plate meter also records total height and a number of measurements, along with calculating average height and average cover.
“We can also use it in conjunction with the Agrinet Software we use, which measures grass through all growth stages. Grazing dates, plus soil temperature and rainfall can also be recorded. The data is then stored on the cloud software, which means that myself and James can monitor both farm’s grazing platforms using the tool, and access the programme anywhere via our smartphones.”
Mr Cliff uses the tools as an indicator as to when cows should be moved onto the next field, as well as monitoring the nutritional value of the grass.
“The results give an early warning ahead of fields going into a deficit, so we can alter our rotation and rations accordingly so that the cows aren’t affected.
“We use a spring and autumn planner, to understand if we can turn the cows out sooner, and if the grass can sustain the cows grazing for a longer period without impacting performance.
“This year, we had a very dry start to the summer so had to feed additional silage to our milkers. But likewise, if we have a year where we have quality grass providing a surplus over the requirements, we have the confidence to reduce the level of concentrate we fed to the cows.
“If we didn’t have the quality of the leys we have on-farm, or ensure that we graze efficiently and produce the quality silage that we do, we would not be able to achieve these figures without the use of more bought in feed.”.
To contact a Wynnstay Specialist and receive tailored advice regarding your grassland, click here.
This case study has also been published in British Dairying, a specialist publication dedicated to keeping dairy farmers up to date with the latest information, innovations and ideas in the dairy industry. Click here to sign up to this FREE publication.