Meating and milking the cream of Cornish Grassland

Published 24 July 15

Earlier this month, the British Grassland Society summer tour took place, this year hosted by Cornwall Grassland Society. Over the three-day event, delegates had a chance to visit a range of dairy, beef and sheep enterprises spread throughout Cornwall. Dr Debbie McConnell, AHDB Dairy R&D Manager, recaps for Forage for Knowledge some of the key highlights from the dairy farms at the meeting.

Cornwall, though highly variable in both soil types (free draining Shilletts to heavy clays) and rainfall (800–2,200mm), has an extensive livestock industry, with 74% of the region’s agricultural economic value derived from livestock farming. European investment in the agri-food industry in the early 2000s has provided a sound base for both meat and milk production, and has fuelled long-term employment in the area.

In recent years, although dairy farm numbers have fallen like other regions of GB, growth in cow numbers and output means that Cornish milk is still a significant contributor to the GB milk pool. Many of the visited farms had gone through periods of expansion in the last decade and are now well placed to make the most of a long-term growing demand for dairy products. We take a quick look at three of the farms visited.

Tresallick Farm, Bray Shop

Patrick and Clare Barrett plus family run a Duchy of Cornwall tenanted farm in East Cornwall. Taking on their first tenancy shortly after they were married, the couple has built the business from nothing. They moved to Tresallick 29 years ago where they now run a 400-cow Holstein herd with 250 followers and 250 beef youngstock for a new fattening enterprise. The 10,000 litres herd, calves all-year-round with low yielders and youngstock grazed during the summer months.

A keen eye on figures and setting clear aims has been important for the business. Patrick commented: “In the current climate, it is important to go back to the basics. For me, that revolves around three goals: 1. Increasing stocking rates to get as much output as possible from every acre of tenanted land, 2. Exploring additional income sources; due to TB we are now fattening all youngstock and this gives an additional income source, 3. Improving my rotation.”

He also explained why it is important to make the most out of the forage rotation on the farm. “Grass breeding has progressed considerably over the last few decades, therefore, it is important for me to improve management of our forage rotation.” As a result, the farm has focused primarily on improving grass and maize silage quality.

Silage leys are all two to five year leys managed in rotation with 65 hectares of maize and 30 hectares of winter wheat. First cut was taken on 10–14 May, with a target ME of 11–11.5. Sulphur was added to first cut to increase protein content.

Home-grown maize makes up 70% of the diet for high-yielding cows throughout the year. To support continued maize production, the farm has had good success with growing maize under plastic on higher altitude parts of the farm. To justify the cost of the plastic, an increase in yields of 3t per hectare is required, something the farm is confident it can achieve. 

Maize

The farm has worked hard on improving fertility in the last two years, reducing calving interval from 425 to 405 days and reducing culling rate from 34 to 21%. This year, triple heifer calves (pictured below) were born and will be reared as replacements for the main herd.

Calves

Rhude Farm, Holsworthy

Delegates also visited Rhude farm near Holsworthy, home to Martyn and Mandy Vanstone and family, and 250 Holstein Friesian cows plus 80 replacements. Over the years, the farm has expanded significantly. However, through this period of growth the family has strived to keep the system as simple as possible for their 9,000-litre, pedigree herd and placed a strong emphasis on getting the basics right all the time.

Quality forage is key to the farm business. However, dealing with high rainfall (1,600mm) and heavy clay soils, unmanaged grassland in the area can quickly disappear into rushes. As the winners of last year’s Cornwall Silage Competition, large emphasis is placed on getting the silaging process right and at least 90% of the farm is cut every year. Last year’s winning silage results were: 31% DM, 11.5 ME, 15,9% CP, 41.8% NDF, 2.8% sugars and 72 D-value.

Sharing silage equipment and staff at silage time with Martyn’s two brothers reduces costs and gives flexibility at cutting time. The recent purchase of an extra tedder has helped improve silage DM content. Regular slurry testing and the use of a trailing shoe tanker is also helping cut purchased fertiliser bills.

Hendrawalls Farm

Making the most of Cornwall’s mild temperatures and extended grazing season, expansion has not always followed the autumn calving route. This visit, which encouraged a great deal of discussion, was to Hendrawalls farm, situated on the edge of Bodmin moor and farmed by the Risdon family. The farm has grown from 150 summer calving cows, to a 500 New Zealand Friesian x Jersey cow herd with 290 followers.

Battling high annual rainfall totals (1,778mm), the use of forage on the 273 hectare farm is maximised to ensure good cost control and 100% of the milking herd’s diet is supplied by forage through grazed grass in the summer and silage and fodder-crops for outwintering during the dry period. Five years ago the farm moved to once-a-day milking, allowing high component milk production (3,100 litres/cows @ 3.93% protein and 4.74% fat) and reducing labour requirements.

Grassland management is key and, with growth currently exceeding demand (78kg DM/ha/day vs. 48kg DM/ha/day), some areas will be closed off for silage in the 25-day rotation. The farm has also recently focused on draining large areas of the farm to improve access at the shoulders of the season.

Making the most of grass is also important for the heifer rearing enterprise with a leader-follower paddock system operated by the weaned calves and in-calf heifers. Looking forward, the farm hopes to exploit new income sources through the development of a new 300-head veal enterprise.

Heifers at Hendrawalls