Maize silage has traditionally been a key part of the Gomershay herd’s diet and the farm’s cropping cycle, but this year, the decision was made not to grow any maize on the Dorset based farm and increase reliance on homegrown wholecrop instead.
“I haven’t got anything against maize and it was a crop that we could grow well, and relatively cheaply,” explains Joe Spicer, who runs Gomershay Farm in partnership with his brother and father. “However, after our experience during the drought of last year and the logistical challenges that growing maize posed, we have decided not to grow maize for our herd this year and utilise more wholecrop instead.”
Gomershay Farm is located in Stalbridge, Sturminster Newton, and Joe helps to manage a 240 strong milking herd of Friesian cows, with 170 followers. The cows are averaging 8,000 litres, at 4.3% butterfat and 3.4% protein, with all milk supplied to the Co-op on a Muller contract.
“My father used to run the herd on an autumn block calving setup, but years ago we made the switch to all year round calving to push yields and ran a much more ‘high input, high output’ type system,” explains Joe. “However, we were still trying to graze and found it challenging to achieve high yields whilst still turning the cows out. Five years ago we decided to go back to an autumn block calving system and run a more intensive grazing system, and it seems to be working well.”
The farm’s grazing platform is split into 27, six-acre paddocks that are rotationally grazed, with the aim to move cows on from each paddock after 24 hours of grazing.
“We measure the grass cover of paddocks weekly, to identify when to shut paddocks down and which paddocks the cows will be moved on to,” continues Joe. “Cows go out as early as possible, usually around February or March, and will start off by going out in the day but come indoors in the evening and remain in overnight.
“Both grazed grass and grass silage is a big part of our system and we have a dedicated silage area of 80-acres, which we can add to with cuts from some of our grazing paddocks, if grass covers and the grazing rotation system allows.”
Like many dairy farmers last summer, Joe struggled with grass growth on the farm. His reliance on wholecrop as a buffer feed during this challenging summer was one of the factors behind the switch from growing maize and increasing the herd’s reliance on wholecrop.
“We always used to set aside around 100 acres of what I call arable crops,” says Joe. “Traditionally this would be around 60 acres of maize for silage and 40 acres for wheat, grown in a five-year rotation, with grass as the final break crop.
“During the drought of 2018, we really struggled with grass growth, so although the cows were grazing, I had to feed wholecrop wheat and grass silage as a buffer feed just to maintain milk quality and cow health. What we found was that milk quality actually went up during this time, with butterfats of around 4.5% and protein of 3.7%, so that really got us thinking about feeding more wholecrop when it came to the cow’s winter diet.”
Joe already had some misgivings when it came to maize and this latest experience helped to solidify where his decision making was heading.
“We can grow maize well on the farm, but we do have pretty heavy ground, so conditions have to be spot on for it to be grown easily,” continues Joe. “Harvesting and re-sowing maize did put a lot of pressure on us at certain times of year just because of timings with other crops and what else is going on, on the farm.
“Also, whilst maize was relatively cheap to grow, we found that the subsequent crop of wheat was quite costly to establish and grow.”
The impact of regular maize crops on the land’s soil structure was also a longer-term concern.
“We are quite lucky in that we farm mainly flat land, so we don’t suffer too badly with soil run off, but we knew that the maize wasn’t doing wonders for soil structure,” says Joe. “All of these factors combined led us to take the decision not to grow maize this year and grow more wheat for wholecrop instead.
“This year we have 60 acres of wheat growing and 40 acres of barley, and logistically it makes life a lot easier; the crops are all planted in autumn and will be harvested at roughly the same time in July. We will run a three-year rotation of wheat, barley and then grass, and this system will have the added benefit of me being able to plant grass in summer, after the barley, and potentially get a late cut of grass from it in the same season.”
Joe works closely with Peter Cade, from ForFarmers, who helps to formulate the Gomershay herd’s rations and ForFarmers’ Chris Boult, who supplies the farm with the bulk of their grass seed and fertiliser.
“I have worked with Spicer family for a long time now and they are very open to trying new things to improve how their system works,” explains Chris. “The decision to stop growing maize and utilise more home-grown wholecrop is another example of them breaking away from their ‘normal’ way of doing things, having carefully assessed all their options.
“It could well have been a fortuitous move; the potential ban of specific maize seed treatments next year, such a Mesurol, will make life a lot more challenging for many maize growers.”
Whilst Joe is pleased that they have made the decision to move away from maize, he is keen to reiterate that he is not ‘anti maize’ and views the current change as a long-term trial.
“We are always looking at ways to improve our system, make life easier for ourselves and boost cow performance,” concludes Joe. “My hope is that by increasing our reliance on wholecrop, we can achieve these goals, but if we decide in the future that maize is a better option, we wouldn’t hesitate to make the change back.”
The hot, dry 2018 summer has been favourable for maize silage quality. There is a noticeable difference in the quality of maize harvested in 2018 compared to 2017. Higher levels of starch recorded in crops means it is important farmers are aware of the nutritional opportunities and challenges that the silage poses and its p...