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Forage is the foundation for success

Farmer tips Farmer tips9-4-2019
Afbeelding: Dave Coward Web

By improving the quality and quantity of the silage produced from his grass leys, Wiltshire based beef producer, Dave Coward, has not only secured a solid foundation on which to base his business, but also one to fuel it’s future expansion.

Located near the village of Mere, Manor Farm is run by Dave Coward in partnership with his son Will, on a Duchy of Cornwall Tenancy. Together they run a pedigree Aberdeen Angus suckler herd of 150 cows, with around 170 followers. The business rears all its own replacements (the Manor Farm herd is certified BVD and Johne’s free) and only buys in a new replacement bull every year, to keep bloodlines fresh.

Dave and Will’s enterprise is run on 750 acres, half of which is dedicated to growing malting barley and milling wheat, and the remainder providing ground for grazing and grass silage.

“We have around 250 acres of downland pasture which we graze the herd on during the summer months,” explains Dave.  “About 40 years ago we used to run a Charolais and Simmental herd, but found that they were just too heavy for the downlands. To prevent ground damage we had to keep the stocking density very low, so we made the switch to Aberdeen Angus and they have performed really well.”

A successful system

Afbeelding: Aberdeen Angus web

The herd is calved down in February, ready to turn out cows and followers on to the downlands in April when the grass is in good condition. The herd will stay out on the downs all summer, with Dave introducing some creep feed for calves in August and the aim is to wean calves from their mothers in October/early November.

“Calves will then be brought indoors and moved onto a silage based diet, with some concentrate. After drying off, cows are kept out on the downs or stubble turnips until they are brought back indoors in January, ready for their next calving,” continues Dave. “When indoors, maturing beef cattle are fed a mix of home grown barley, ForFarmers Primemix pellets and homegrown silage – all of which is put through a mixer wagon.”

Traditionally, Dave used to sell on all stock as stores, but this approach has changed recently.

“We re-evaluated our approach after being shut down with TB last year,” explains Dave. “Now, we do a mix of fattening for finishing and producing stores.  This gives us flexibility, so that when store prices are good – like this year – we can sell more cattle as stores, but if we are shut down with TB or market prices dictate, we can keep animals on farm for longer and finish them here.”

Dave and Will regularly weigh cattle to assess their progress, batching 10-15 animals together according to their weights. The aim is to sell on steer stores at 450kg and fattened animals at around 600kg, having been on farm between 24-30 months.

Focus on forage

Afbeelding: Dave Coward and Chris Boult web

Good quality grass silage is the foundation for the Manor Farm herd’s diet, and subsequently, the success of Dave’s business. A lot of thought and attention goes into ensuring that the farm’s limited 60 acres of grass silage is as productive as possible and producing the highest quality grass.

“In my opinion, if you are stuck with poor quality silage, then you are always having to play ‘catch up’ to get the best from your cattle,” explains Dave. “By really focusing on producing the best quality silage we can, it puts our business in a strong position. For us, it is much easier and more cost effective to dilute high quality silage to suit our needs, rather than having to buy in extra feed to make up for shortcomings in silage quality.

“I have always paid attention to forage quality and taken multiple cuts of silage a year, but about 10 years ago, I decided to really push the performance of our grass leys. I also wanted to try and put some nutrients back into the soil and reduce our reliance on bought in nitrogen fertiliser.”

After talking over the options with ForFarmers’ Chris Boult, Dave decided to start reseeding grass leys with ForFarmers TOPGRASS Protogen seed mix which includes Advanced grasses and red clover.

“I now reseed the grass leys every 2-3 years on a rotational basis, usually as a break crop after wheat,” Dave explains. “We aim to take three cuts a season and I have been really impressed by the performance of the grass, both in terms of silage yield and the quality of the silage produced, with the clover adding a much-needed boost of protein.”

“As well as the clover fixing nitrogen in the soil, what I really like about this seed mix is its flexibility – it performs well in any conditions. If the weather is hot and dry, or the ground is wet, the mix still performs well as the Advanced grasses have a good dense root structure.”

Forage fueling expansion

Dave and Will plan to adapt and expand their business over the coming years to safeguard against the potential TB shutdowns, as well as secure the long term sustainability of the farm.

“Will and I want to start finishing a lot more of our own animals and to do this we need extra space,” concludes Dave. “Plans are in place to develop a new shed to accommodate 100 extra cattle for fattening, which will enable us to fatten more or our animals and potentially expand herd numbers in the future.

“The other thing we need to fulfill these future plans is plenty of high quality grass silage; with more animals being finished on farm, we will get through a lot more silage. Luckily, with our grass leys performing so well, we are in a really strong position and will be able to increase finished cattle numbers, in a sustainable and cost effective way.”