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Grazing and forage take centre stage (March 24)

Award-winning grassland management is reaping dairy-business rewards on one Pembrokeshire-based dairy unit. And a focus on home-grown feed is maximising milk from forage.


TEXT SARA GREGSON



Growing high-quality home-grown feed for his 550 cows and 320 followers is key to one producer reducing his reliance on external inputs. And dairying in a prime grass-growing area is helping third-generation producer Richard Morris to achieve this.


He typically turns out between February 20 and March 1. But conditions were exceptional in 2023 and after a dry winter the ground was ready on February 1. However, 10 days later it started to rain and they all had to come back in until the end of March.


“The ground conditions have to be right before the cows can stay out,” he says. “We usually open the gates in late February, but in 2023 the grass was growing, fertiliser had been applied and the land was dry at the beginning of February. But then we had a third of the annual average rainfall in March. There are no set rules or guidelines. The grass may be growing, but the ground has to be ready too.”


Richard’s family-run dairy business, at Bowett Farm in Pembrokeshire, now comprises 412 hectares of predominantly light red sandstone soil on gently rolling topography down to the Pembroke River. This is ideally suited for early grass growth and grazing.


Autumn calving


The herd averages 8,000 litres of milk, at 4.5% butterfat and 3.6% protein, with 4,900 litres produced from forage. Milk is sold to Leprino Foods on a solids contract. The unit comprises 112 hectares of grassland as a silage block, and 162 hectares of dairy cow and youngstock grazing. Richard also grows 86 hectares of wheat and barley for crimping, 32 hectares of maize, and 20 hectares of peas and beans for wholecrop.


Cows calve outdoors in a tight autumn block to maximise milk production from grazed grass and to avoid any penalties associated with producing spring milk. “The fields can dry out during the summer, but this is when the cows are naturally drying off,” says Richard.


Richard’s attention to detail when managing grassland and grazing on his unit have seen him win the All Wales Grassland Farmer of the Year competition, run by the Federation of Welsh Grassland Societies, in 2023. He was also runner up in the British Grassland Society’s Grassland Farmer of the Year Award in the same year.


His approach begins with measuring grass growth on a weekly basis throughout the growing season, and he plots the results using the AgriNet program. Fields closed up first in the autumn are first back into rotation in the spring and are usually those closest to cow buildings.


The grazing platform is divided into 30- or 40-day rounds and the cows go into fields containing around 2,500kgDM/ha and graze it down to 1,850kgDM/ha with 12-hour moves. The aim is to reach ‘magic day’ – when grass supply matches grass demand – by April 1. The total amount of grass grown is up to 14tDM/ha.


Grass-based system: cows are typically turned out to graze in February


Slurry application


Slurry is applied to grazing fields in the autumn and an initial dressing of 30kg/ha of urea is applied before turnout. Another 30kg/ha of urea is applied after each grazing. In 2023 Richard injected liquid ammonium nitrogen fertiliser into 50 hectares of grassland, placing the nutrients where the plants need it most, and he plans to do this again this year.


Three quarters of the herd calves in September in a four-hectare paddock, after being fed a transition diet for four weeks before calving. Sexed semen is used on 300 animals for the first three weeks of insemination. Charolais genetics are used on the rest of the herd and Aberdeen Angus on the heifers. “The tight calving pattern means the calves all grow at a similar rate and are easy to manage in groups,” says Richard, adding that beef-cross calves are sold direct to private buyers.


To maintain grazed forage yields and quality, he reseeds fields every five or six years. And soil sampling, carried out every three to five years, reveals phosphate and potash at index 2 and 3, respectively, and pH at between 6 and 6.5. Richard uses long-term grazing mixtures with diploid ryegrasses, to produce a dense sward for high stock-carrying capacity, and white clover.


Old leys and any broad-leaved weeds are sprayed off and the new seed is direct drilled into the ground. “Early establishment is crucial, with seed sown at the very latest in early August. Dirty water is applied immediately after, using a trailing shoe,” adds Richard.


Aiming for high-quality silage, first cut is taken in very early May followed by cuts in the first week of June and at the end of July. Analysis of 2023’s silage revealed 11.8MJ of ME, 16% crude protein, and a D-value of 72. To increase silage protein content, Richard is now growing 82 hectares of a red clover/ perennial ryegrass mixture.


All winter forages are clamped, with the red clover covering the harvested grass. The wheat, barley, pea and bean wholecrops are harvested at the end of June, and clamps are opened on September 1 to feed the fresh calvers as part of a TMR formulated to provide maintenance plus 30 litres.


A blend, containing rapeseed protein not soya, is fed as part of the winter TMR, at a rate of 700kg per cow. This is topped up with 900kg of concentrate through the parlour, but Richard is working to reduce this amount. As the herd grew from 90-head in the late 1990s, more grazing and a larger milking parlour was required. Installing a 54-point rotary in 2019 was a turning point for the business, halving milking times. But the construction of an underpass, to connect two grazing blocks, also made a significant difference to how the herd is managed and grazed.


Worthwhile investment


“Crossing the road with the cows was a nightmare,” explains Richard. “The cows were often held up, as were local people and tourists. And it took three people to move the cows safely. Now the cows are out grazing 10 minutes after leaving the parlour. The whole project cost £76,000 and has been worth every penny.”


The business has also invested in a 50kW wind turbine, biomass boiler and 70kW solar array, which make the farm almost entirely self-sufficient in energy. All yards are covered so no rainwater dilutes the slurry, and the unit also has 16 hectares of stock-fenced woodland and hedges.


“The farm’s carbon footprint is ahead of our milk buyer’s benchmark,” says Richard. “We’re running and continuing to develop an environmentally friendly and sustainable system. And we frequently invite the public onto the unit to watch cows being milked from our viewing gallery.”


“We’re proud of what we’re doing, it’s great to have recognition with awards and we know we’re building a resilient business that’s fit for the future.”

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