The father and son pair manage a herd of 650 dairy cows plus followers based at Herstmonceux, East Sussex. The Ford family has been farming there since John’s father established the herd more than 60 years ago. Together John and Matt now manage a total of 900 acres of grass, wheat and maize.
Management of the herd is based around grazing and the farm’s location on the south coast means that animals can – if weather permits – be turned out as early as February or early March. Just a few miles from Eastbourne, they enjoy slightly warmer temperatures than the national average and also benefit from sandy soils meaning the land is free-draining and not prone to poaching.
The Fords aim to keep their Autumn calving window as tight as possible, with everything calved down by October. The cows are then kept in and fed TMR which is formulated by their ForFarmers account manager Steve Fuller. Housing over the winter is in sand-based cubicles.
One significant investment has been an Italian-made feeding and mixing robot. This cuts silage from the clamp, taking off the face a few inches per day minimising aerobic spoilage as only a small amount is exposed to the air. They also use a Lely Juno feed pushing robot to ensure cows have constant access to feed while housed. Compound feed is fed in the rotary parlour with individual diets made possible via the use of pedometers.
Once solely black and white, the family introduced the Fleckvieh to the herd around 8 years ago. This was motivated by the need to increase their milk solids which now stands at 4.47% and 3.58% protein with yields averaging 8,800 litres/year. ForFarmers account manager Steve Fuller explains that 3,500 litres of that comes from forage.
As well as the dairy enterprise the family also rear some beef calves with beef breed semen being used with around a third of the dairy herd with sexed semen on all heifers and the best cows. With so many mouths to feed on the farm maximising their home-grown forage has therefore been essential, says Steve.
Getting the most from their grass means a well-considered reseeding programme with advice from Steve as well as ForFarmers seed manager Mel Digger. On Mel’s recommendation they have been using a combination of Topgrass Primogen, Nytrogen and Protogen for their silage leys as well as Dairygen with herbs for their grazing leys.
The two silage mixes include a Rye Grass PLUS grass - festulolium with either a hybrid or Italian ryegrass crossed with a fescue explains Steve. “The fescue contributes high dry matter, resistance to cold, drought tolerance and persistence while the ryegrass brings rapid establishment, good spring growth, good digestibility, sugar content and palatability.”
Topgrass Primogen is a high yielding two-year mix incorporating Perseus Italian ryegrass which offers multiple cuts of leafy quality silage. “It has rapid growth after cutting and also works exceedingly well in a multi-cut system,” says Steve. “John and Matt have benefitted from the bulk the ley offers as well as the high quality silage it produces, which is such an important part of their overall feeding programme.”
Meanwhile Topgrass Protogen is a longer term mix due to the incorporation of Lofa Hybrid Ryegrass Plus and Tetraploid Hybrid Ryegrass. “Both these species add extra persistence to the ley to support the Perseus and Perun Italian Ryegrass Plus,” explains Steve. The deep-rooting nature of the cultivars also helps improve soil structure and gives the ley some drought tolerance while the inclusion of 20% red clover adds fertility to the soil and boosts the protein content of the resulting silage. “It helps reduce reliance on bought-in protein,” he adds.
Reseeding is organised on an annual basis according to the rotation and need, he explains and the difference in performance between the newly seeded leys and permanent pasture has been huge.
“Last year’s reseeds were cut in April, but the permanent pasture didn’t grow well until after the rain in May. Only the new seeds were showing the best yields at that point.”
The Fords continue to invest in improving infrastructure including regular updates to buildings however they have no intention to increase the dairy herd further. Instead John and Matt are focussed on maintaining their production levels and maximising their milk from forage by continuing to produce the best quality grazing and silage possible.