Implementing a nutrient management plan and adding heifers to a paddock-based grazing system have allowed one Wales-based producer to improve both grass production and utilisation.
TEXT JAMES MARSHALL
With purchased feed and fertiliser prices putting margins under pressure, producers are focusing on using inputs as efficiently as possible and maximising the use of home-grown forage. Anglesey-based producer David Rowlands is no exception, and has been motivated to adjust nutrient management planning and heifer rearing for his herd and dairy unit.
“We’ve grazed using a paddock-based system for around 30 years,” says David, who runs Bryn Bella Farm in partnership with his parents Ken and Helen. “Grazed grass and grass silage form the cornerstone of our herd’s diet, so we are always looking at ways to produce more and achieve greater productive value from it.”
Two years ago the family reviewed their herd’s nutrient management plan, with help from ForFarmers, and this helped to support strong grass yields efficiently. “We took on 25 hectares of new grassland at around the same time and that’s now being managed to maximise the provision of grazing for our heifers, as well as provide additional grass-silage cuts,” says David.
He and his parents manage a 200-cow all-year-round calving herd, milked twice a day through a 16:32 swing-over parlour. Herd average yield is 8,200 litres, at 4.4% butterfat and 3.39% protein, and milk is supplied to Glanbia on a cheese contract. The unit grows around 30 hectares of cereal crops, with the remaining 116 hectares comprising silaging and grazing ground. When the milking herd is turned out in April, cows are initially rotationally grazed on 15 1.6-hectare paddocks. The grazing area is then expanded after first-cut silage.
The herd is fed a winter TMR comprising wholecrop, protein blend, urea-treated home-grown wheat, and grass silage. Low yielders go out to grass in early April, with high yielders following a month later. During the grazing period high yielders are buffer fed after the morning milking with a mix of wholecrop and blend. To help support high-grass quality and yields, David implements a reseeding programme.
“We regularly reseed silaging ground and aim to provide a four-year break from grass as part of a 10-year rotation. Between grass, two crops of winter wheat, two crops of spring cereals and two catch crops of hybrid brassicas are grown, with the latter grazed by our beef cattle,” says David. “This approach allows us to build soil fertility and ensure land is in the best condition to support good grass growth.”
To improve grass-silage quality, the Rowlands switched to a multi-cut approach to silaging in 2017. “We take our first cut in the final week of April and then cut again every five weeks after that, with the aim to take a total of four cuts. Grass quality has improved significantly by adopting this approach,” says David. Three years ago David began to examine how to adapt the unit’s approach to fertiliser applications to improve grassland productivity. “I was conscious that I may have been a little stingy with fertiliser applications. But given the cost of artificial fertiliser, I knew it was important to re-examine our approach to make the most efficient and targeted use of inputs.”
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ForFarmers’ Dyfrig Hughes suggested the family review its nutrient management plan (NMP), and put David in contact with his colleague, Gary Sanderson. “We take regular soil samples from across the dairy unit, and Gary used these to create an updated NMP,” says David. “His ideas seemed sensible and we have been following his programme for two seasons, with good results.” Prior to that David had only applied nitrogen sulphur on grazing and silaging ground after the first round of grazing and first-cut silage, respectively. Now the input plan is more comprehensive.
“We were overlooking the importance of phosphorous on our grazing ground, so I now apply fertiliser with a mix of nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur – at a ratio of 22:8:5 – with an application rate of 210kg per hectare,” he says. “For silage leys I apply nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and sulphur at a ratio of 20:5:12:7.”
The impact on grass growth and quality has been positive. During the dry spring of 2020, when grass yields would typically have taken a big hit, the unit saw good growth rates. “Our grassland is getting the balance of nutrients it needs, and we are providing these in an efficient and targeted way,” adds David.
Grass quality is good, with fresh grass analysis taken in April 2021 putting ME values at 13.3MJ/kg, dry matter at 233g/kg and D value at 831g/kg. Overall, the grass had a high MELK score of 993.
Two years ago, David purchased 25 hectares of additional grassland close to the dairy unit, which is allowing them to further improve grass utilisation. “We’d previously grazed our heifers on rented land, using a set stocking system. Now we’ve purchased the additional block of land, we can justify the investment on infrastructure and have split the area it into 1.5-hectare paddocks, which heifers rotationally graze.
“We need to maximise the financial return from this ground, and paddock grazing the heifers enables us to do this by better utilising the grass available. The heifers are doing well, with good growth rates, and they’re hitting target weights to achieve first calving at between 22 and 24 months old.”
The additional land also provides a source of grass silage, with cuts being taken in conjunction with the heifers’ grazing rotations. “Both the nutrient management planning and our revised approach to heifer grazing are allowing us to make the most of the grass-based assets we have on the farm,” says David. “Improving productivity and utilising as much grass as possible are both key to securing the long-term sustainability of our herd and business.”