21 December 2001

Friendly farming and making a profit with LEAF

Profitable and

environmentally friendly

farming is being put into

practice on one mixed dairy

and arable unit in Berks.

Hannah Velten reports

TOP of the wish list for many producers is to leave their farm in a better state than when they arrived, which is possible through improving the farms profitability and bio-diversity.

One way to achieve sustainability is to become a member of the charitable organisation Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF). Membership is accepted from mixed and pure livestock farms.

In 1991, Syngenta-owned Jealotts Hill Farm, Bracknell, joined LEAF for the opportunity to complete self-assessed business and environmental audits. The main farm enterprises are 170ha (420 acres) of arable and a 210-head dairy herd.

According to farm manager Mark Osman, annual audits provided a way of questioning farm practices. "The emphasis on the link between farming and wildlife made us look at what and why we were doing things."

However, he insists that any farming system must be econ-omically viable. "If it doesnt pay, it doesnt stay on this farm.We have to know our exact costsof production.

"By continually scrutinising our system though annual audits, we have made changes that have either saved money or improved the farm.

"Vet and medicine costs have dropped from £45/cow to £34 because we looked for cost-effective sources of drugs and bought an electrical testing kit to detect high cell count cows before they became clinical cases. This test has helped improve the clear up rate."

LEAF audits are based on the principle of Integrated Farm Management (IFM), which can be thought of as an umbrella covering the whole farm system (see wheel).

"We are looking at our whole approach to farming and trying to protect and make the best use of farm resources," says Mr Osman. Straw and feed produced by the arable enterprise are used for livestock. Just under 5000 litres of the dairy herds milk yield of 7635 litres is from home-grown feeds.

A farm waste nutrient plan, established in 2000, aims to make the best use of manures. "One of our biggest cost saving has been strategically applying manures to arable crops, resulting in savings on compound fertilisers of £2500.

"We also follow a tight stocking rate of 2.7 livestock units/ha, which makes grazing management more efficient and allows us to maximise the arable enterprise so fixed costs are spread widely."

A recent example of IFM has been the trial placement of round bale silage in the tramlines left after wheat harvest. Stubble turnips were sown around the bales.

The crop is being grazed by 35 Aberdeen Angus heifers and they are moved daily to fresh turnips using electric fencing. Light round feeding rings are rolled by hand to the next pre-placed bale, giving cattle supplementary forage with little effort.

"Grazing cattle provide manure for the maize crop, which is planted after stubble turnips and this also saves some winter housing costs. There is no soil compaction because bales do not have to be bought to cattle with machinery and machinery and energy costs are also reduced.

"Bales do not have to be stacked, covered in plastic netting, holes patched or rodent bait put down," adds Mr Osman.

The 80-cow spring calving dairy herd will be tried on this system next year up until Christmas, but straw bales will be added alongside silage to provide long fibre.

Further changes to the farm this year, as suggested by LEAF, include involving staff in wildlife conservation plans.

Mr Osman asked his local borough authority for their bio-diversity action plan. "This identified key species which were under threat locally. There were six threatened species on our clay land.

"We spent a large amount of money on conservation projects, but staff need to understand why they cut farm hedges only two out of every three years. Without knowing it increases berry production to maintain bird populations, what is the point?

"Staff management is also included in audits. Communication, flexibility and understanding fosters improved performance, dedication and team work," says Mr Osman.

Another farm target is to find the best way to manage set-aside. This year, 6m (20ft) wide strips have been left around the outside of arable and forage fields to provide a winter nesting habitat for skylarks. "In silage fields, the strips are round baled during third cut silage for dry cow forage."

Jealotts Hill Farm became a LEAF demonstration farm in June 2000, which means visitors, including school children, are welcomed. Mr Osman regards rural education to be important, particularly now the public are more aware of food safety, animal welfare and environmental issues.

He believes IFM is the future for farming and says that 90% of livestock and arable producers are already practising IFM principles. "But LEAF provides a structured approach to achieving sustainable and profitable systems." &#42

Pre-placement of silage bales before stubble turnips were drilled has saved time, effort and costs, says Mark Osman (right).