Boosting productivity and soil health

Establishing short-term grass leys immediately after harvested maize crops has enabled one Sussex-based dairy farmer to not only increase the overall forage output of his dairy unit but to also start regenerating soil health across large sections of farmland.

Sussex based dairy farmer charlie hughes 2048 1024 px - ForFarmers UK

After experiencing four consecutive summers of poor grass growth due to difficult weather conditions, Charlie Hughes was only too ready to adapt the approach to forage production on his farm.

“We’ve always had an emphasis on producing milk from forage and want to minimise our expenditure on purchased feeds,” explains Charlie, who owns and runs Southview Farm in Bury, West Sussex. “Currently we’re hitting 3,500 litres from forage out of a total average yield of 11,500 litres. We want to be achieving 5,000 litres from forage, but due to unpredictable weather conditions it’s been hard growing the grass we need to support this goal. The summer weather has been either too cold and wet or too hot and dry, so we found ourselves having to buy in extra forage more frequently.

“I knew that we needed to increase the overall level of forage production on the farm but had to grow this grass at the right time of year, when it stood the best chance of flourishing. So, two years ago I made the decision to utilise my existing maize growing land to grow short-term grass leys in-between maize crops to produce extra, early-season grass and help buffer potential shortfalls in grass production later in the season.”

Italian Ryegrass catch crop

Making changes

Charlie’s farm comprises 250 acres, of which 60 acres is used for maize and the remainder put down to grass. His herd is run on a Lely robotic system, with the cows averaging three visits to the robots each day, producing 11,500 litres of milk at 4.5% butterfat and 3.4% protein. During the spring and summer cows are provided with six hours of access to grazing each day, if conditions allow.

The herd is fed a PMR of maize, grass, straw and haylage, along with Pelemix, Lintec and Minerals. ForFarmers Optima 18 + yeast cake, is fed to yield through the robots up to a maximum of 11kg per day.

Feed barrier 2 cropped

“As well as the dairy herd I also own Charlie’s Farm Shop, which sells a range of local produce and is located next to the farm, just outside the village of Bury,” continues Charlie. "For the last 20 years my family has always processed and bottled our own milk, but we made the decision to stop doing so last year. It was a big decision to make, and it was this change that really got me thinking about how I was going to run the dairy farm in the future.

“Producing more homegrown feed for cows, as efficiently and in as environmentally friendly way as possible will help secure the long-term success of our dairy business. Taking a new approach and establishing grass after maize seemed to tick all the boxes in terms of improving soil health, reducing erosion risk and efficiently increasing the forage production capacity of the farm.” Charlie considered undersowing maize with grass but had some reservations about potential yield loss and the practicalities of establishing the grass crop.

“In a good year, I feed the cows a ration of 60:40 maize:grass in the PMR,” says Charlie. “It’s a huge component of their diet and I couldn’t risk any reduction in harvested yields. I also didn’t have a local contractor with the right precision farming equipment needed to do the job well. Instead, in 2021 we went ahead and trialled growing short-term grass leys directly after our maize was harvested.”

Refining his approach

Once Charlie’s contractors had harvested the maize in October, all the maize ground was then cultivated and sown with Westerwold ryegrasses, applied via a slug pellet spinner in mid-November 2021.

“When the time came to harvest this grass in April, we got around three tonnes per acre, which was a useful, extra insurance crop to have in the clamp,” explains Charlie. “But I felt that we could do better. We got advice from our ForFarmers’ Technical Forage Manager, Alan Lockhart, and he pushed us to use higher-performing Italian Ryegrasses and change our establishment timings and techniques. He’s been a great help and really supported us throughout this whole process.”

In 2022, maize was harvested in September, with the ground then cultivated and drilled immediately after with a ForFarmers Italian Catchcrop Mix (comprising 50% diploid and 50% tetraploid grasses), at a rate of 32kg/ha using a Väderstad drill. As well as liquid slurry applied using the farm’s new dribble bar, an early application of nitrogen and sulphur was also made to the crop to help boost grass protein content and yields.

Charlie Hughes silage

“By getting the grass in the ground earlier and making these other changes we went from yields of three tonnes per acre to yields between six and nine tonnes,” says Charlie. “The increase in overall grass yields on the farm is significant, and there’s the reassurance that having this extra, early season grass in the clamp brings. This year, the grass has been clamped and looks like it will be fed out over winter. But because we treat with a Pioneer silage inoculant, if we’re short on forage we have the option to utilise the grass sooner, after just six weeks.

Charlie has also been impressed with the soil health benefits that this new approach has brought, with clear signs that his maize growing land is starting to regenerate.

“The whole approach has worked well on many levels,” concludes Charlie. “There’s clearly soil health advantages to having maize ground covered, with roots in the soil for more of the year.

“As well as the reduced soil erosion risk, I’ve noticed that the maize ground works down well in the spring and is less compacted - before you might need two or three passes with a power harrow when cultivating but now it’s only one. The ground also looks a deeper colour, smells good and is less stale, and that’s a positive sign that it’s functioning more aerobically and supporting all the positive bacteria and microbial life that we want to see in the soil.”

Chalie Hughes en maize

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