31 March 2000

Kale set for come-back

Kale will be back on the

menu at West Town Farm

next season after a

successful weed control

trial. John Burns reports

EXCEPTIONALLY good weather has allowed Andrew Braggs dairy cows to graze Maris Kestrel kale in clean conditions for much of the past two months.

After being so dramatically reminded of the benefits of grazed kale in a kind season – saving conserved feed, less bedding and less slurry to carry and spread, as well as giving cows exercise and fresh air – Mr Bragg has reversed last summers decision to stop growing the crop.

That decision was based mainly on difficulty controlling weeds under an organic system. But last years trial of high-topping weeds and kale and putting the mixture on top of clamped grass silage was successful. The topped kale grew back well and the cows ate the novel silage with relish.

The last of this seasons kale was mown on Mar 24 because it was about to flower and will now be strip-grazed. Spring barley will follow, and the barley stubble will be left over-winter to benefit cirl buntings as part of Mr Braggs 10-year Countryside Stewardship agreement.

In the past six weeks, stewardship projects have been to the fore. A new hedge has been planted, while ditching and fencing has also taken place.

With 25 cows and heifers calved since Jan 1, milk production has exceeded target and 10,000 litres of quota had to be bought to cover it.

Calves sold in Exeter market – Mr Bragg has no organic outlet for them – have made better prices. Hereford cross bulls achieved £60-£70 each, South Devon cross bulls averaged £90, South Devon cross heifers made £20 apiece, while Friesian bulls and Hereford cross heifers both made £10 a head.

ADAS costings for February show the herds margin over all feed costs improved on the year by £205, despite £600 more being spent on purchased feeds. Home-grown forages cost less and income was higher due to marginally more milk. Margin over all feeds was up 0.52p/litre on the year.

On our latest visit to West Town, Mr Bragg explained his dry cow management system. Routine use of antibiotics on dry cows is not allowed under organic rules.

Cows are changed to once-a-day milking for a month before drying off. They are then moved to buildings well out of earshot of the milking parlour and housed in airy, generously strawed yards.

For the first three days they get water and straw only, and after that they receive a low energy, high-fibre diet until they go out on to tightly restricted grass. A homoeopathic preventative product, or nosode, to protect against mastitis is added to the water troughs and udders are checked daily. One bottle cap of the nosode is put in each of the troughs once a week. That treatment is used for all ages of cattle from in-calf heifers upwards. One dry cow had been so ill with E coli mastitis that she could hardly get up. But she responded dramatically to being stripped out and given a homeopathic remedy three times daily for two days. Within 24 hours she was at the trough eating with the rest. "But like most things in life, it doesnt always work," he admits.

Most of the early lambs have now been sold, producing both excellent gradings and returns, almost all being Es and Us, fat class 2 and 3L. Because there is, as yet, no specific organic market for early lamb, they are sold for the same price negotiated in advance for hoggets by the Organic Livestock Marketing Co-op. For March, that was £3.25/kg for R conformation, with 5p more for Us and 10p for Es. Penalties for overweight lambs are severe. For example a 23.5 kg E3H lamb made only £41 whereas an E3H exactly on the 23kg limit made over £72. Deductions start above 21.5kg. Meat and Livestock Commission levies and co-op commissions total very nearly £4 a lamb.

Market prices for non-organic suck lambs have improved significantly recently and Mr Bragg sees them reaching levels close to organic prices this season. But he will stick with the co-op. "I believe in co-ops and our prices were agreed well in advance. So I know what I am going to get, whereas the non-organic market is nothing but a gamble each year."

His Rialto winter wheat was so forward that he felt harrowing to control weeds would do more harm than good. The main weed is well-rooted charlock which harrowing would probably not tear out. But the crop has been rolled, as has the silage ground.

Clover is growing strongly all over the farm thanks to the early spring warmth. One 9.8ha (24 acre) grass/white clover ley which completes its conversion to organic status in April looked superb. It seemed a shame to plough it up this summer ready for drilling to wheat in the autumn. But, as Mr Bragg says, those good clover leys are the foundation of good organic wheat crops. &#42

Above: Kale near to flowering was topped recently and will now be strip grazed. Right: Wait your turn… Andrew Bragg keeps dry cows on a low-energy. high-fibre diet before they are turned out to grass.

ADASmilk cheque – West Town Farm


February Year end Feb

2000 1999 2000 1999

Total cows 95 90 88 87

Cows in milk 70 71 69 63

Milk yield (litres a cow) 369 389 5172 4,876

Purchased feed (£ a cow) 22 18 162 202

Concs (£/t) 191 199 175 180

MOAF (£ a cow) 71 73 1,104 1,003

Milk price (p/litre) 29.5 29.5 29.5 29.5

FARM FACTS

&#8226 West Town Farm, Ide, near Exeter, Devon, a 65ha (160 acre) farm rented from the Church Commissioners. Farmed organically since July 1992 by Andrew Bragg.

&#8226 Plus 26ha (64 acres) of owned land three miles away, in conversion to organic; 8ha (20 acres) of organic land on an FBT, one mile away; 4ha (10 acres) of organic grass keep five miles away.

&#8226 80 to 85 dairy cows, plus followers, 320,000 litres milk quota.

&#8226 75 Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset ewes lambing in November.

&#8226 10-year Countryside Stewardship project on 91ha (224 acres)

&#8226 Free-draining, mainly sloping land, some steep.

&#8226 Triticale and spring barley grown for feed.

&#8226 Three full-time staff.