Forage Field Gloucestershire

Published 8 May 15

When asked, at the recent RABDF/BGS/AHDB Dairy Forage Field Event at Lydney Park Farm, what his core business was, farm manager Gavin Green didn’t hesitate before answering: growing grass. Obsessional grassland management was one of the key themes running through the day and the clear undercurrent for many of the decisions that were made on the farm.

In 2007, the herd consisted of 420, high input Holstein Frisian’s, with an average yield of 9,200kg/cow, milking three times a day, housed full-time, and with up to five hours a day spent on feeding and bedding up. The herd was making small returns for what was a large investment and a huge amount of effort.

That year, they visited various good grassland-based operations and decided to turn to a grazing system as the predicted budgets were too good to be ignored. That autumn, 101.1ha (250 acres) of grass was planted, 30 water troughs were put in, and several kilometres of tracks and 18km of electric fence were installed. In February 2008, the youngstock went out to grass, the heifers followed a few weeks later and, by the beginning of April, all stock was out.

For the five years after the move, the estate ran autumn and spring calving herds, to help with the system change in the early days and reduce the fertility losses associated with conversions.

2013 was the first year both herds were spring calving, and the same year one of the herds moved to a once a day (OAD) milking system. Last year was the first season both herds were OAD milked. Herd numbers now stand at 880 and the plan is to expand cow numbers, under this system, to 1,150 by 2017.

The decision to take both herds to milking OAD was a profit decision not a production one. With no appetite for investment in a new parlour on the Estate, OAD became a logical choice. Gavin and herd manager Keith Davis are confident they can make nearly as much, if not as much, money on an OAD day system as a twice-a-day system, primarily through reduced costs, and without the depreciation of a new parlour. Average yield per cow is about 4,000 litres, and the stocking rate is 2.5 cows/ha. 

Providing the right quantity of high-quality grass and good access to it are the cornerstones of the system. The farm is on the banks of the River Severn Estuary and at high tide is below sea level. The ground is heavy and can be difficult to manage, although it does retain moisture in summer. The team relies on the network of tracks, and tricks such as holding the cows up after milking to ensure they have an appetite when they do go out to graze and will get their heads down rather than trample about, to manage grazing. Even in 2012, with its very wet conditions, cows still went out to graze every day.

The team’s obsessive grassland management means measuring, monitoring and providing the right allocation, play a large part in its success. The grass growth is measured weekly and the team uses graphs and charts to help make important decisions, such as where the cows will graze over the next week, where a shortfall might be occurring and where surplus grass may need to be taken out.

“We tend to stay out of anything above 3,000kg/DM/ha, except in autumn when we’re building cover,” said Keith Davis. “We’ll take it out to big bales and bring it back into the rotational planner quickly. We do an awful lot of budgeting to stay ahead of the grass and know exactly where we are.

“The whole team are strong advocates of using a plate meter,” Keith continued. “You might only be 100-200kg/DM/ha out either way, when you calculate by eye, but it doesn’t take long for these differences to mount up, and you’re way off what you really have. With two herds, and a number of different people measuring the grass, the plate meter help standardise it.”

Cows are supplemented with concentrate and silage, and the aim for 2015 is somewhere in the range of 200-250kg for concentrate.

The average DM yield/ha on the farm is 14.6 tonnes, which is produced using 250kg of fertiliser. Everything is soil sampled every three to four years and the P&K is slowly moving in the right direction after the intensive system. All grazing land gets N twice at the beginning of the season and then the cows are followed round by further N.

Decisions about reseeding at Lydney are also made from the constant monitoring that goes on. Underperforming paddocks are identified and investigated before a decision to reseed is made. Reseeding tends to take place in the spring, with drilling taking place close to balance day. It’s at a time when grass is plentiful and the farm can afford to lose an area, but also a time when grass growth is at its highest and the paddock will be back to grazing in six weeks.

The drive behind the changes to the system at Lydney Park was profit, and both Gavin and Keith feel that this grassland-based system is helping to remove the risk from the business. By reducing their reliance on input prices they can identify the risks faced by the business and, with high-quality grassland management, can provide the vast majority of both the quality and quantity of feed the herd needs.