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Forage focus reaps rewards

Sector News Sector News9-12-2019
ForFarmers’ Gary Sanderson and Michael Metcalf

Developing a simple, lower cost system is helping one Cumbria-based dairy herd to build a sustainable and efficient business that’s fit for the future – and the next generation.

Reducing cow numbers and producing more milk from high quality home grown forages are part of Michael and John Metcalf’s long term succession plan to reduce costs and simplify the system at Crossfell House Farm, Kirby Thore, Cumbria.
Michael and Anne Metcalf farm in partnership with their son, John, and his partner Heidi, on their 202 hectare farm, in the Eden Valley. Currently, 180 cows are milked at the unit though two Lely robots, with a small group of freshly calved heifers still going through the parlour.

“During the past three years we’ve brought milking numbers down from around 300 cows to 180, with the aim of creating a unit that can be run by two people and only requiring some extra help with calf rearing and relief milking when necessary,” explains Michael. 

“This was part of a policy of reducing inputs required for the farm and better utilising what we produced – forage, grain and slurry. We’ve also diversified our business and now sell freshly calved heifers every month, so parlour training them is an advantage.”

Multi-cut silage

Michael and John work closely with ForFarmers’ forage technical manager Gary Sanderson, and after some lengthy discussions they decided to adopt a multi-cut silage system in order to improve milk from forage. Although Michael was sceptical to begin with, he soon changed his mind when the benefits of a multi-cut approach became apparent during the dry summer of 2018.

“We started early with our first cut, on May 10, and then had time to take a decent second cut before conditions got too dry,” he says. “We then took a third cut to feed to dry cows, even when we knew it was going to be poor quality, and then followed that with a high quality fourth cut. In a year when so many producers struggled with both quantity and quality, we had no issues.

“That said, we do have a strict policy of making sure that sheep leave the farm by the December 20. This is to allow enough time for regrowth for first cut and to ensure that no areas are grazed too hard,” he adds.

Crossfell Farm in the Eden Valley
Crossfell Farm in the Eden Valley

Clear target

This year the Metcalfs took their first cut even earlier than the previous year, in the first week of May, and had a clear target of cutting every 30 days. “We worked within a range, from 28 to 35 days, and were able to get all our cutting done in this window this summer. Grass yields were good again and we only needed to take four cuts. We cut 110 hectares for first cut, but took 20 hectares out for dry cows for the second and third cuts, before returning to our original area for the fourth and final cut. 

“Having a good relationship with our contractor, who knows how to work in a multi-cut system, is crucial,” adds Michael. “We also leave a grass stubble of between 60mm and 70mm for quick regrowth and never wilt the grass for more than 24 hours.”

Gary, who is a BASIS and FACTS qualified agronomist, has worked closely with Michael to recommend the best leys to flourish under a multi-cut system and to provide the high quality silage needed. “All land is in an arable rotation – with grass, wheat and winter barley – and this means that no ley is more than three years old and grass leys are treated as a crop,” says Gary. “We put a grass mix together for the Metcalfs, comprising 40% festulolium, with the rest being made up of late heading hybrids and intermediate perennial ryegrasses. The mix provides grass with high dry matter yields and good digestibility and it copes well with being frequently cut.”

Silage analysis has shown consistently good results across the four cuts, with an average ME of 11.5MJ/kg DM, a D value of 76 and an average dry matter of 32%. 

“Encouraged by Gary, we’ve worked hard to change our mindset from looking at the amount of silage in the clamp to think about the tonnes of dry matter in the clamp,” says Michael. “After all, that’s what drives good results.”

Grass mix includes 40% festulolium, as well as late heading hybrids and intermediate perennial rye grasses
Grass mix includes 40% festulolium, as well as late heading hybrids and intermediate perennial rye grasses

Improved yields

Two years ago yield per cow stood at 8,200 litres and now with the robotic system, which was installed in the summer of 2017, the herd is on target to average 11,000 litres by Christmas, with the aim of reaching 50% from forage. This is an improvement that Michael feels is due in no small part to increased forage quality.

The Metcalfs see Gary as part of their team and it was after discussion with him that they began to look at utilising slurry more efficiently and put a nutrient management plan in place. “All soil is tested on a five year rotation and we now test slurry regularly, so that I can work out what we’ll be getting from slurry and where the gaps are,” explains Gary. “This way we can make much better use of what is produced on farm and reduce the amount of bought in inputs.” 

He adds that, prior to this, the Metcalfs had been applying between 150kg/ha and 160kg/ha of nitrogen on to silage ground for first cut. In 2018 this fell to around 100kg/ha plus 40kg of sulphur, with relative reductions for subsequent cuts. By preparing a nutrient management plan each year, and balancing phosphorous, potassium and sulphur applications, Gary has been able to reduce purchased fertiliser inputs and substantially increase dry matter yields. 

This autumn, Michael will take delivery of contract grown maize from Cheshire and, in the 2019/20 season, the plan is to try growing maize. “Next year, if all goes to plan and cows are fed more tonnes of dry matter from grass and maize, the unit should be able to free up about 300 tonnes of wheat to sell. This will be another valuable stream of income for the business. 

“Our aim is to drive milk production from the high quality feed we can grow ourselves, by making the best use of our inputs,” says Michael. “We’ve been able to reduce the amount of concentrate we purchase and should soon be in a position to sell some of our cereals off farm.”