Good management of autumn covers has been central to improving grassland performance on a Welsh dairy farm, which will host an RABDF/BGS and MDC open day next month.

Organic producer Bill Ridge starts the final grazing rotation on 1 October and closes his covers at 2100kg/ha DM. He has achieved growth of 100kg/ha DM over winter, so he opened on 1 February with 2200.

With a ready supply of grass in place, one of the most challenging tests he faces as a spring-calving organic farmer is maintaining grass quality in spring.

“It’s June before clover fixes nitrogen into the grass sward, so we can have problems with grass going to head,” says Mr Ridge, who farms 220ha (544 acres) at Narberth, Pembrokeshire. “If the grazing conditions are good, as they were last year, it is easier because we get a leafier sward.”

Organic status

Mr Ridge converted the farm to organic status in 2000 and admits that, because the emphasis was on rotation, he ploughed more land than was necessary. Now he ploughs between 12 and 18ha (30-40 acres) a year, planting a crop of turnips followed by a white clover seed mix of late heading perennial ryegrass and white clover, undersown with peas and barley or oats.

This produces a ley with a high D value and a dense sward, important, says Mr Ridge, when grazing on the shoulders of the year.

His system relies on good grass leys, but this, he says, isn’t necessarily down to reseeding. He will only reseed when a field is under-performing, never after a set number of years. He has fields which have never been ploughed and are still performing.

Three years after the farm was first converted to organic, there was a drop in grass production. Tests on the free-draining loam/shale soil showed indices had fallen to a P index of less than 1. He applied for a derogation to apply sulphate of potash for two years and this, together with annual applications of 100kg/ha rock phosphate, has rectified the problem. The farm is now producing 10t/ha DM.

Visual measurement

Dirty water is spread on grazing land in winter and slurry is applied to the silage block. Grass covers are calculated using visual measurement once a fortnight. An average cover of 2000kg/ha DM is targeted throughout the grazing season.

Achieving the right balance between maintaining high-quality swards and fully feeding cows has taken some fine tuning, but Mr Ridge seems to have achieved this by grazing down to 1500kg/ha DM. “We had been grazing down to 1300 for a couple of years, but yields dipped,” says Mr Ridge.

The herd now averages 5300 litres and is mostly spring-calving, but three years ago, encouraged by his milk buyer, OMSCo, he established a block of 100 autumn calvers. This complicated his otherwise easy-to-manage system, so the herd will be fully spring-calving again next year.

The herd of 440 milkers is predominately New Zealand Friesian, but for the past three years, heifers have been in-calf to a Jersey. Holstein Friesians and New Zealand Friesians are used on the rest of the herd. “We have been discouraged from using Jersey on an organic system due to our milk contract not paying on solids, but perhaps we have been wrong to think this is the wrong type of cow,” says Mr Ridge. He hopes OMSCo will review milk quality options for payment as this ties in well with the system he runs.

Concentrates

He had been feeding his cows straights, but has now switched to concentrates because, he says, concentrates don’t cost substantially more and are easier to feed. He has installed feeders in the 40/80 parlour and last year fed 900kg a head. “I would like to get away with 500kg and use more grass,” he says.

He believes he can achieve that by targeting a cover of 2500kg/ha DM and topping when needed to maintain a feed value of 12ME.

The spring herd starts calving on 1 February, calving over a 10-week period. After calving, cows go straight out to grass by day and are out by night too from 1 March. At the end of the season cows come in at night from mid-November and are fully housed in the first week of December.

Farm Walks

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  • Bill Ridge’s farm is one of three venues for this year’s RABDF/BGS and MDC farm walks aimed at helping farmers make more use of grazed grass in spring to reduce production costs. The walks take place across the UK with Mr Ridge’s being the first on Tuesday, 11 March. This is followed a week later by a visit to Tom Rawson’s unit at Thornhill, Dewsbury on 18 March and 10 days later farmers will be able to visit Gavin Fowler’s herd at Boode, Devon on 27 March. The final visit will be to Scottish producer Robert Kirkwood’s farm at Grange, Dumfries on 2 April. Any wanting to attend one of the farm walks should contact RABDF on 0845 458 2711.