Top quality forage and grazing is a major priority

Producing top quality forage and grazing is the number one priority for Matthew Senior’s management of his cross-breed herd in Somerset.

Robotic Milking
Organic herd grazing - ForFarmers UK

Organic production is not without huge challenges, but Matthew Senior is committed to this way of farming. Together with wife Coral he took on a share farming arrangement of Eastfield Farm near Crewkerne in 2009. The farm was mid-way through conversion and for Matthew, whose experience until then had been contract management of high input systems, it was a learning curve.

“I became really interested in soils and regenerative techniques and have never looked back,” he says. “Even if we ever came out of official organic production I wouldn’t farm any differently.”

They started the herd at Eastfield with 200 Jerseys and soon introduced Irish Friesian genetics to boost yields. Over time the herd doubled in size. The launch of their Holy Cow diversification selling milk through vending machines in 2019, and a change to robotic milking the following year prompted further management changes.

Previously spring calving they split the herd into spring and autumn blocks and reduced numbers to 360. This meant they could milk with 4 Lely Astronaut robots while evening out yields meant they could fulfil their Arla contract and also serving vending machine customers.

The cows took to the robots quickly, but management changes took some getting used to says Matt. “It has got better every year and we have absolutely no regrets.” As well as solving labour issues the Seniors have seen health improvements with a reduction in cell counts and mastitis cases. The robots also helped increase yields from 4500 to 5000l/cow at 4.6% butterfat and 3.6% protein.

Matthew Seniors Lely robot cropped

Focus on grass

Grazing and forage production is at the heart of the system. “We have 350 acres in the home block plus another 220 rented land. Of that, 160 acres is for arable silage mixes and 60 acres is permanent grazing for youngstock.”

They use an ABC grazing system throughout the season managed by Lely Grazeway selection gates. “The Grazeways mean we don’t have 350 cows going out en masse cutting up the ground. I call it free range dairying because they come and go as they please.

“The ABC system sounds complicated and rather than managing one platform I have three, but once you’re tuned into it, it’s really easy.”

This year the cows went out on February 2nd and are usually full housed from mid-November. “We are on clay soil here, so our cow tracks are really important in making that possible.”

Matthew aims reach 80% milk from forage, having achieved 73% recently. This will require continued close management of all grazing and silage leys. Ben Trott, ForFarmers UK Organic and Grazing Commercial Manager regularly visits to take samples. “It means we always have a good idea of the quality of our grass. We aim for 12 ME and 16-17% protein,” says Matthew.

“Our weekly measuring highlights the underperforming paddocks. Around 10% of the grazing platform is reseeded each year. We are also pretty ruthless with our slurry too. We have built a lagoon to hold all our slurry for the winter as well as the rainwater from the guttering, so we have a very liquid product.

Matthew Senior cow tracks

“We apply every 30 days with a trailing shoe, following the cows through the grazing platform. The silage ground also has an application after each cut.”

Silage leys are a red clover, ryegrass and lucerne mix. “On the grazing platform we use a multi-species mix with tetrapolids, diploids and festololiums, a bit of Timothy and a small amount of red clover, lucern and plantain. The red clover and lucerne disappear after four years, but this works well as part of our rotation.”

In the sheds the diet for the milking herd is based around ‘top quality grass silage’ with the arable silage mix (oats, pea and vetch) fed in troughs and cake fed to yield through the robots. Cows giving less than 8kg are just fed molasses in the robot.

Start with the soil

Everything starts with the soil,” Matthew stresses. A quarter of the farm is soil tested every year and he is pleased that organic matter increased from 1-2% in 2010 to 14% currently. He has noticed the ground is more freedraining now. “I believe it’s because the crops we grow have different rooting lengths and penetrate the soil at different depths.”

Another advantage of the split block calving is that half the herd is dry over the summer months, he adds. “It takes the pressure off the grazing platform. In last year’s drought we still managed to keep grass in the diet, although we did have to buffer feed some silage.”

Other goals include achieving 450kg milk solids from a 450kg cow. “We are getting close to that with 439kg solids from a 445kg cow. We follow an EBI breeding system which will help us get there.”

The additional challenges for organic producers are not reflected in the price premium, says Matthew. “It used to be 10ppl organic premium two or three years ago, now it is just 4ppl. Given the difference in feed prices between organic and conventional, it doesn’t make sense.

“While I am completely committed to the organic ethos, the margins are questionable. It makes our focus on top quality forage and grazing even more important going forward.”

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