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Cover crops “saved our bacon!”

Sector News Sector News8-7-2019
Afbeelding: Root crop

With the primary aim of providing a break crop between reseeding of grass leys, on one Carmarthenshire dairy farm, cover crops have also provided a much-needed source of extra feed for cows and helped to extend dwindling forage stores.

Richard Cole farms in partnership with his son, Edward, at Llwyngwydd Farm, in Whitland, Carmarthenshire, where they run a herd of 200 milking cows across 400+ acres. The herd produces an average of 7,900 litres at 4.2% butterfat and 3.3% protein, with all milk going to Muller.

“We run a rotational grazing system and aim to turn the cows out around March, and they will stay outdoors until October,” explains Edward. “Grass is the key part of the herd’s diet and to complement our spring and summer grazing, we aim to take three cuts of good quality grass silage a year, which we feed out with a maize and rape mix as a TMR over winter. This is then topped up with an 18% compound that is fed to yield through the parlour.”

Last year, as a result of dry weather conditions, Richard and Edward were looking to re-seed some old, poorer performing grass leys to improve their productivity and sought advice on the best type of seed mix to use.

“We work closely with Michelle Cross from ForFarmers and she came and had a walk around some of the fields that we were planning to re-seed,” continues Richard. “She highlighted the risk of frit fly and leather jackets damaging grass if we sowed new grass seed straight away, in place of the older leys. She advised that I put a break crop in before sowing the new grass seed and suggested sowing a cover crop mix.”

Michelle recommended a Rapid Root and Winter Graze seed selection, that would provide a good mix of forage rape, stubble turnips and kale.

Afbeelding: Root crop v 2

“Putting in cover crops between sowing new grass on old would reduce the risk of pests and improve soil structure,” explains Michelle Cross, from ForFarmers. “The cover crops also provide a potential source of extra feed for livestock, and with the hot, dry conditions experienced last summer significantly reducing grass growth and forage yields on their farm, I thought it wise for Richard and Edward to grow something that could be grazed later in the season and help extend his forage stores during the winter period.” 

The cover crop seed mixes were sown over 20 acres of land and established well last August, despite the hot conditions.

“Like most dairy farmers, we struggled with grass growth on the farm last summer as we battled with the drought,” says Richard. “Not only did we not harvest as much grass silage as previous years, but we also had to start feeding it out much earlier in the season to help maintain cow performance and cow health.

“Luckily, because we had sown the break crops, we were able to turn out around 50 of our pre-bulling heifers and in-calf heifers on to the cover crop mix and this provided plenty of good quality grazing between December and April. If it hadn’t been for the cover crops, we would have run out of grass silage to feed the livestock, so it really saved our bacon!”

The cover crops have proven to be so successful that Richard and Edward now plan on incorporating them as part of a regular reseeding schedule across the farm. 

“As well as extending our forage supplies, using the cover crops also freed up space in the sheds, which was very handy, so they are now firmly part of our reseeding plans going forward,” concludes Richard. “Cover crops seem to be a great asset to the farm; providing a break crop when reseeding grass that has more benefits than just improving soil structure and reducing risk of pests. Their use represents a win-win situation and we have already ordered our cover crop seed mixes from Michelle for this year.”