Attention to grassland at heart of Dorset farmers philosophy

Scrupulous attention to grass production and a move to block calving have enabled Dorset farmer Tom Marsh to maximise milk from forage despite the challenges posed by organic production and drought.

Pete Marsh 720

Investing in a plate meter and software to analyse his grass budget was something of a game changer for Tom Marsh who farms in partnership with his parents Noel and Amanda in Winterborne St Martin, Dorset. They had already taken significant steps to maximise home-produced forage for the herd at Eweleaze Dairy alongside changes to breeding policy. The new technology took it up another level.

Originally Holstein Friesian, the family started introducing Fleckvieh, Montbeliarde, Swedish Red and Norwegian Red genetics in 2017. “We wanted a cow that relied less on high protein diets, with the added bonus of adding in some hybrid vigour and improving longevity,” explains Tom.

It’s been a success. “Our cross-breed cows are also now more resilient and we’re able to turn out earlier in the year.” The total herd has been reduced slightly, taking out cows that didn’t fit the new system, but he now intends to return to the 340-cow capacity.

Staggered turnout

They currently have 302 in-milk plus followers. Block calving from August to October works well. “We catch the last of the Autumn grass before we bring the cows in and they are then fully-housed and fed as a single group from November.”

Staggered turnout between February and April helps minimise feed costs, says Tom. “Turning out the later lactation cows first means they can get more of their protein requirement from grass and reduces the overall feed bill.

“By mid-March we had 225 outside which more than halved the amount of concentrates we needed.” Analysis of the grass shows that it is 30% protein fresh weight. “That’s not an opportunity I want to miss.”

Focus on grass

Looking after the farm’s grass is a focus for Tom. “Grass is the best thing you can feed a cow and it’s much more efficient to get her to it, rather than clamping or baling it.”

The grazing block includes clovers and ryegrasses plus herbal leys which also include chicory and plantain. “Most are long-term leys for five years plus, but we tend to rejuvenate them adding clovers and grasses as they are grazed.” His spring and autumn routine ensures paddocks are aerated, grass harrowed and flat rolled as necessary. After grazing he uses a dribble bar to apply slurry at a low rate to stimulate growth.

While increased feed prices have been a major motivation for boosting milk from forage, environmental impact is also a concern. “As a farmer I am responsible for the environment and this land. If our grazing and forage can benefit us by being most profitable feed and if that grass is growing all the time and always sequestering carbon it’s a win-win.

“Feeding forage rather than concentrates can only benefit the farm’s bottom line. However our farm doesn’t have particularly good soils and is prone to drought so it is a real challenge.”

Direct selling

In 2020 Tom and wife Chloe created their Eweleaze Dairy Organic brand and set up a vending machine from the farm gate. They sell their own liquid milk and flavoured milk which have both proven extremely popular plus a range of products from other local farms. “We have a great local following and hope to add more products in the near future,” he says.

The total farm is 400ha but not all is grazeable, he explains. “Our grazing block is 90ha which is why we have to buffer feed.” As well as the forage kale and rape mixture which provide winter feed for youngstock Tom also produces wholecrop peas and barley mixture, straight barley and sometimes wheat too. The only purchased feed is cake and blend to fix protein in the cows’ overall diet. Both are bought from ForFarmers under guidance from Account Manager Ben Trott.

“I like working with ForFarmers and have been pleased with the consistent high quality ingredients, which help keep diets stable for the cows through their lactation.

“We are now at approximately 45% of our total yield from forage and it’s rising year on year. I want to get closer to 55%,” says Tom. The plan is to grow more forage and other crops away from the farm, before storing them on-farm. Continued use of the Agrinet software will also be important, he says.

“It tells me how many animals we can graze and what buffer feed is needed.” It has proven its worth on the silage ground too. “It tells us exactly the right time to cut and helps us ensure the residuals were high enough for grazing afterwards.”

After just a year of use the data has become invaluable, he says. “It’s been a learning curve, but our herdsmen and I are both getting quite obsessed with it!”