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John Helliar

6 November 1998

John Helliar

John Helliar has a 162ha

(400-acre) farm on the

Longleat Estate, near

Warminster, Wilts. He milks

230 cows, rears his own

replacements and grows

40ha (100 acres) of maize,

which comprises 60% of the

winter ration. 1000 store

lambs are put out on winter

grass keep in October for

sale as fat lambs in

January/February

WHAT a difference two days make – straight from summer into winter all due to two inches of rain in 36 hours, accompanied by gale force winds. Having kept cows in one night, they went back out the next day only to stand in a group under the hedge and look thoroughly miserable. By midday I felt sorry for them so they did not need much persuasion to come back in and, unfortunately, have not been out since.

This is all very embarrassing because the Paul Bird discussion group were due four days later for a meeting on extended grazing. Unless the weather changes back to a dry period immediately which, if you believe the weather forecast is very unlikely because more gales and rain are expected next week, we will have to accept the inevitable. This means we will shut up 40 acres of dry area in the hope of grazing it in early February. You cant beat nature.

Unfortunately, we still have two fields of maize to harvest, which is a good days work. Although it has not been flattened, it has taken quite a battering, which Im sure will reduce yield and quality.

Ive taken a gamble and bought 600 store lambs so far at an average price of £24. Some are a bit smaller than usual, but now with so much grass about because of herds being housed early, it shouldnt be too much trouble getting them growing. We will wait a few weeks before purchasing any more.

My main bone of contention at the present time is milk quota leasing prices. With the current price of milk, 9p is way over the top. I thought when I paid 7p it was 2p too much. We have also leased some on a three-year deal. Only time will tell if it was the right decision, plus the purchase of 110,000 litres from the farm we have taken over. This gives us just over 1.3m litres. &#42

Taking a gamble… John Helliar has bought 600 store lambs.

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John Helliar

22 May 1998

John Helliar

John Helliar has a 130ha

(320-acre) farm on the

Longleat Estate, near

Warminster, Wilts. He milks

180 cows, rears his own

replacements and grows

45ha (110 acres) of maize,

which comprises 70% of the

winter ration. 1500 store lambs

are put out on winter grass

keep in October for sale as

fat lambs in January/February.

IT IS one of those years when we have gone from winter straight into summer.

If it has been the wettest April for over 100 years and we came through it with cows out every day plus 18 nights, that is quite an achievement.

What has come out of this spring is we have got three distinct soil types regarding water retention.

The greensand is like blotting paper, will absorb large amounts of rain, and grows grass through the winter for early grazing but produces little or no grass from mid-June to September.

The sandy loam over sandstone is relatively dry, but needs two or three days to be dry enough to allow cows to graze. The third type, silty loam over clay, although well drained, needs a week at least to support cows in the spring, but will grow grass right through the summer – even in 1995 was green in late August.

To exploit the greensand in spring any surplus cash will have to go into improving access to this area, also the aim will be to shut up 30 acres by October to allow the late autumn growth to be grazed in February.

I estimate that 260t of silage has been saved, equivalent to 20 acres of maize, plus all the other benefits of less concentrates, labour, bedding, etc.

I know that the New Zealand consultants have come in for a bit of criticism in the Press recently, but dairy farmers have got to look at the whole picture, not just extended grazing; it is a concept, it is about reducing production costs.

The problem lies in the mind. Once we can get away from the idea of producing large amounts of conserved forage – which is where a lot of the high capital and variable costs start from – I am convinced most farmers can go part way, and some the whole way, towards extended grazing.

All the maize has been planted (94 acres), the first on April 28 the last on May 8, which on average is 12 days later than last year. One of the MGA trial plots was planted on the first day and is just emerging (May 12). This is not a variety trial but a plant spacing and treatment experiment which we will watch with interest. &#42

We need to move away from producing lots of conserved forage, says John Helliar. He says most farmers can go part way and some the whole way.

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John Helliar

27 March 1998

John Helliar

John Helliar has a 130ha

(320-acre) farm on the

Longleat Estate, near

Warminster, Wilts. He milks

180 cows, rears his own

replacements and grows

45ha (110 acres) of maize,

which comprises 70% of the

winter ration. 1500 store

lambs are put out on winter

grass keep in October for

sale as fat lambs in

January/February

SPRING has arrived early. Having had 7.5cm (3in) of rain in the first week of March, 160 of the 200 cows went out to grass on Mar 8, a week later than planned. The Italian ryegrass undersown in the maize last June was 15cm (6in) tall and looking really dense (it was sheep grazed last November). A back fence is being used to encourage regrowth, and a further 50 units of N applied, with the hope of getting a second grazing before it goes back into maize in mid-April.

The savings are quite appreciable – at this point it is £90 a day – £40 on the making of conserved forage, £40 on a high protein blend and £10 on bedding costs. On the other side of the equation is the grass seed and establishment cost of £20 a day so a net saving of £70 is not to be missed. Milk did drop by a litre a day for two days but is now back on prediction.

The reason the 40 cows were left in on winter ration was because they were either about to be served or had been served in the last 50 days, so the last thing we wanted was more reabsorptions as Apr 1 is cut off day for serving cows.

The maize varieties have been chosen. We narrowed it down to three just to simplify harvesting, the forage maize varieties are Lincoln (50 acres), Hussar (30 acres), the ground ear maize variety is Aelis. The Lincoln will fill one pit plus putting 2.1m (7ft) of maize on top of 1.2m (4ft) of grass silage which we always feed first in the autumn. The Hussar will fill the remaining clamp, so if there is a difference in ripening between varieties it should not be a problem.

Writing this article on Mar 18, with the air temperature at 15C and soil at 8C, it seems like the start of April. If it was, I would be out with the maize drill, as there has been no frost since the beginning of January for the second year running. I would say the seasons are changing and we will have to exploit it to survive.

After Gordon Brown delivered his budget, it looks almost certain that interest rates will rise, and with the £ so strong and getting stronger by the day another green £ adjustment is a certainty. So with my budget day on Apr 1, can I put my milk price at 18p/litre or will it be lower? Whichever it is, there are going to be some radical changes made in order to survive. I will keep you posted next month. &#42

This years maize silage clamp fillers on John Helliars farm will be Lincoln – which will also top one of the grass silage pits – and Hussar.

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John Helliar

27 February 1998

John Helliar

John Helliar has a 130ha

(320-acre) farm on the

Longleat Estate, near

Warminster, Wilts. He milks

180 cows, rears his own

replacements and grows

45ha (110 acres) of maize,

which comprises 70% of the

winter ration. 1500 store

lambs are put out on winter

grass keep in October for

sale as fat lambs in

January/February.

WITH prices of all commodities on the floor, it is nice to have some super weather to cheer us all up and hopefully allow us to get the cows out early to produce some cheap milk.

All grassland has received 50 units of nitrogen or dirty water. Where the dirty water was put on in January the grass has grown 2 or 3in, and the grassland as a whole is looking good – the sheep have done a good job. The one disappointment is to see so many docks appearing. Having sprayed them last spring I expected some, but not so many as there are. We will have to spray them again.

All fields have been soil tested; this is the third time we have tested since we have been here (1990). We are trying to build up a picture of the fertility, especially the lime status. Every field had 2t in 1991, and we spread on half the farm in 1995 – mainly the maize area – so I am anticipating liming a similar acreage this year, on the greensand.

Having assessed our maize and grass silage stocks, we will have about 300t surplus to requirements for this winter. This is partly due to the exceptional maize yield last summer and partly due to the cows grazing right through till mid-November. So, with every chance of an early turn-out on 20ha of Italian ryegrass, we have decided to grow 6ha of Cadenza winter wheat, which will give us some flexibility. We can either sell the grain, crimp it and feed it as concentrate, or whole-crop it as forage if we have a prolonged drought.

The 66 heifers are all in-calf, mainly to Friesians – 52 – with the rest to Aberdeen-Angus. We havent housed 26 heifers this winter and they have not suffered for it. They are on the field where the dry cows spent all of the summer, so not having any grass there in the spring will not be a problem. In fact it could be a bonus, not wanting too much grass for the dry cows.

One aspect of our cow fertility causing concern is reabsorption, so far this has happened to 10 cows. What is interesting is they were all served between Sept 20 and Oct 20 which is the same period we were feeding 4kg of crimped wheat in the ration. Because the butterfats dipped to around 3%. on Oct 20, we changed the ration taking out 2kg of wheat and replacing it with 2kg of a higher protein blend. It could be pure coincidence, we will probably never know. &#42

John Helliar will have about 300t of maize and grass silage surplus to requirements for this winter.

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John Helliar

30 January 1998

John Helliar

John Helliar

John Helliar has a 130ha

(320-acre) farm on the

Longleat Estate, near

Warminster, Wilts. He milks

180 cows, rears his own

replacements and grows

45ha (110 acres) of maize,

which comprises 70% of the

winter ration. 1500 store

lambs are put out on winter

grass keep in October for

sale as fat lambs in

January/February.

THE last six weeks have been difficult for three reasons. Firstly the weather, then 14 days lost because of a bad back, and lastly the price of fat lambs.

The wet weather has almost doubled the workload with the sheep. We normally match the amount of grass fenced to the number of sheep in a group so we dont have to move them more than once every 10-14 days. This year it lasted no more than five days. Picking the wire up after the sheep had finished grazing became a nightmare even with a 4×4 quad bike. Totally different compared with last winter when most of the work was done by 4WD truck.

The wet weather was well overdue – even with 4in in December the total rainfall for 1997 was 27.4in, the same in 1996, but a very different weather pattern. The average for the previous five years was 34in. One bright note is there is plenty of good grass for the sheep.

Its a good job we have been fattening store lambs for quite a few years. At least when we get to the end of this season the loss we will have made can be averaged over 15 good years, then perhaps it wont seem quite so bad.

Having sold nearly 700 lambs, we are averaging £2.50/head less than what we bought them for last October. I had a feeling it would not be as good as the last few years, but never dreamt it would be as bad as this.

The store lamb market in the autumn is weather linked – if we have had a long hot dry summer, farmers are not interested. But in 1997 it was a very grassy late summer, and with beef prices falling a lot more people turned to sheep; more buyers, more competition, hence higher prices. If fat lamb prices stay low right through the next winter then store lambs should not cost more than £25-£30 next autumn.

Lets turn to the main enterprise – cows; slightly more profitable, but not a lot. Not many problems: Mastitis and lameness are both down from the last three years average, which is pleasing because our vet tells us it is one of the worst years he can remember.

Yield from the June/July calvers is two litres up on last year, averaging 24 litres, protein up 0.19 to 3.49. Butterfat is down from the very high last Jan/Feb of 4.60 to 4.21. I still hope to hit 7000 litres from just over a tonne of concentrates by the spring. &#42

Finished lambs have seen brighter times says John Helliar, with losses on buying-in price of the 700 sold so far averaging £2.50/head.

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John Helliar

5 December 1997

John Helliar

John Helliar has a 130ha

(320-acre) farm on the

Longleat Estate, near

Warminster, Wilts. He milks

180 cows, rears his own

replacements and grows

45ha (110 acres) of maize,

which comprises 70% of the

winter ration. 1500 store

lambs are put out on winter

grass keep in October for

sale as fat lambs in

January/February

This is the last month where Im in sole charge of my farming business.

As of Dec 21 my son David returns from his 18-month round the world farming experience taking in four countries – all totally different. What a wonderful opportunity – I just wish I could have done it 35 years ago. I can tell from his letters that he is itching to get home and put some of his new-found knowledge into practice. His last letter included six pages of his ideas on cow grazing with maps and plans on new track-ways, all in great detail. I just hope I can keep up – I had better forewarn the bank manager.

It is obviously something I have been looking forward to for some time but it will probably be difficult for both of us at first, especially as for the past 40 years the buck has stopped here. At least we will have three months of the winter to sit down and sort out our different roles, along with both our objectives, short- and long-term. Needless to say, they will both be different, but it is a case of sitting down and reaching a balance.

Back to the present. The cows are in night and day. Yield has held steady with the quality back to normal (4.2% fat, 3.4% protein). After the hiccup with the crimped wheat, it will be interesting to see what happens to the herd fertility which has been quite good 10 weeks into our breeding cycle. Scanning has now been carried out from 28 days – so far 64% holding to first service.

We are synchronising the heifers for the second year using Crestar. Last year we had mixed results, splitting the heifers into four groups, one was as low as 45% while another was as high as 70%.

This year the routine has changed. In July we gave the first Leptavoid &#42 injection plus All Trace cattle bolus and a copper injection. So far out of the first two groups 50 heifers have been served, 40 holding to the first service (80%). The last 20 have only just been served – fingers crossed.n

In the future, John Helliar will have to take into account his sons objectives for the farm as well as his own. Itll be tricky at first he admits.

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John Helliar

10 October 1997

John Helliar

John Helliar has a 130ha (320-acre) farm on the Longleat

Estate, near Warminster, Wilts. He milks 180 cows, rears

his own replacements and grows 45ha (110 acres) of maize.

1500 store lambs are put out on winter grass keep in October for sale as fat lambs in January/February.

HERE we are the end of September with temperatures by day in the mid 20s and still warm at night and no rain of any consequence since Aug 25. We harvested 30 acres of maize, which is clamped, and the cows are still grazing night and day with a good cover of grass in all fields. What more could one ask for.

Well for a start grazing quality; at best its poor, at worst its b….. awful; due mainly to yellow or brown rust. Add to that the contamination from previous grazings and you have a situation that is not ideal for freshly calved cows. Having calved 150 in the last three months it is difficult to challenge the grass if quality and intakes are poor. So at the moment we are feeding 20kg of last years maize. Unfortunately, the quality of the maize is a bit suspect due mainly to harvesting it a bit late last autumn; 66 D Value, DM 35% and only 10.4 ME which is very low.

However, the crimped wheat which is being tried for the first time looks quite encouraging. The analysis has just come back and is DM 70%, crude protein 14.3 and ME 13.6. This is being fed at 4kg a cow. Hopefully, there will be enough tonnage to last until the ground ear maize comes off in November.

The ryegrass that was drilled into the maize crop in June looks a bit sick. I dont think it is the atrazine because where there is a gap in the maize the grass is very good. It is probably down to the exceptionally high yield of maize, so the grass is paying the penalty – thats the problem when you try to be too greedy. The dilemma now is deciding whether it is dead or now that the maize is off will it come back to life? The trouble is we cant afford to wait and see; if we are hoping to graze in early March the new seed will have to go in now. Im taking a second opinion before deciding what to do.

The first of the sheep arrived in early September and to date we have 1300 lambs put out on three farms. The quality of the lambs is good but I dont like the price. With the £ being so strong the export market is going to suffer, which will mean the end price will be lower than last year. I was hoping to pay £3-4 less for store lambs, but with so much grass about everybody is after extra lamb which has pushed up the price.n

John Helliars freshly calved cows are grazing and being offered 20kg/head/ day of last years maize silage to make up for the shortfall in grass quantity.

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John Helliar

12 September 1997

John Helliar

John Helliar has a 130ha (320-acre) farm on the Longleat Estate, near Warminster, Wilts. He milks 180 cows, rears his own replacements and grows 45ha (110 acres) of maize, which comprises 70% of the winter ration. 1500 store lambs are put out on winter grass keep in October for sale as fat lambs in January/February.

WHEN we drew up the farm budget last March we made a resolution or a conscious decision, call it what you like, not to do any major structural improvements this year. But with the best will in the world, this has not quite worked out, so we have ended up doing two relatively small projects. One was as a result of our ministry dairy inspection when it was pointed out that the ceiling in the parlour was not up to present day standards. The plaster board was breaking up, as a result a few small holes had appeared and the paint was also peeling off. We bit the bullet and put a new white plastic board over what was already there. It was a job that didnt look too difficult, but in the end took three times as long as I thought – it was a good job we used our own labour.

The second project was a result of our annual review with our vet, dealing with all aspects of herd health and fertility. On the agenda I put "must reduce vet bills"; it is there every year but this year it was the only item. Michael Thorp our vet said he could reduce time costs by half if we did our fortnightly routine line-up not in the parlour but in a line of proper cow stalls where a number of cows could be examined together.

After analysing our vet bill we estimated that over £1000 went on time cost for the 18 routine visits, so reducing that by half looked quite attractive. By removing a dividing wall we have erected 10 stalls with quick release gates, one stall also acting as a foot trimming crush as our old one is 15 years old and gradually falling apart. Material cost, excluding the foot crush which cost £460, was £500. Labour has again been done by ourselves, so if our vet is right the project could pay for itself in one year. It looks like the new stalls will be put to use quickly as 60 cows will be served in the next three weeks.n

John Helliar hopes that new cow stalls will cut the vets bill by £500 a year as less time will be required for each of the 18 routine visits.

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John Helliar

15 August 1997

John Helliar

John Helliar has a 130ha (320-acre) farm on the Longleat Estate, near Warminster, Wilts. He milks 180 cows, rears his own replacements and grows 45ha (110 acres) of maize, which comprises 70% of the winter ration. 1500 store lambs are put out on winter grass keep in October for sale as fat lambs in January/February.

EVERY month brings different problems; now weve got too much grazing area. The thing that is bugging me the most at the moment is that having established a super grass/clover ley, which is now in its second season, the cows have become selective, eating the grass and leaving the clover.

When the ley was sown in 1995 the seed rate was 13kg of perennial ryegrass, half of which is tetraploid, 0.75kg of Timothy and only 0.5kg of Alice white clover. Now, having taken two silage cuts, the proportion of clover to grass is two-thirds clover, one-third grass. Total nitrogen used was 120 units/acre. Grazing started 10 days after cutting and has been continuous on the basis that eventually they will have to eat it. Before we put the next ley in palatability will be at the top of the agenda.

On June 15 Bartissimo ryegrass was undersown into 44 acres of maize. It was sown through the fertiliser compartment on a steerage hoe at 10kg/acre, with 10 acres sown using the hoe, the rest with the hoe blades removed. Both methods work equally well.

Four half-acre plots of different Italian ryegrass varieties have also been sown. All was well for about four weeks. They germinated well, established good ground cover, and got to the three- or four-leaf stage when one of the fields changed dramatically.

It soon became evident that Lincoln, which was the tallest at sowing by some 6-9in, has completely shaded the ryegrass which is now looking weak and spindly.

I thought at first it might have been the atrazine because the second application went on two and half weeks before the ryegrass was sown, which I now understand is not long enough, four weeks being recommended, but Im not convinced that is the cause. The variety of maize might be a contributing factor for it is by far the tallest and most dense of all the crops.

As I finish this article, 2.5in of rain has fallen in the past 36 hours; the sheep might come in early this year.n

John Helliars cows have started selectively grazing a super grass/clover ley – theyre rejecting clover in favour of grass so palatability will be top of the list of requirements when the next ley mix is chosen.

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John Helliar

28 March 1997

John Helliar

John Helliar has a 130ha (320-acre) farm on the Longleat Estate, near Warminster, Wilts. He milks 180 cows, rears his own replacements and grows 45ha (110 acres) of maize, which comprises 70% of the winter ration. 1500 store lambs are put out on winter grass keep in October for sale as fat lambs in January/February.

HAVING more milking cows on the farm last summer as a direct result of the BSE crisis meant we produced more of our milk quota. However, we reduced cow numbers through the winter from 185 to 175. Consequently, there will be a lot of forage over – 250t of maize on top of 400t we usually feed in July and August. The 250t equates to 16 acres which should have gone to ground ear maize. On top of this, there is 200t of grass silage left, enough for nearly 20 cows.

The dilemma is what action do we take? If we try and sell we wont get much for it – nearly everyone has plenty. We could try and reduce inputs, for instance, fertiliser, for this seasons silage. I might do this later in the season but Im sure its right to maximise first cut silage. On the other hand if we do have a drought I will be very glad of the extra feed. So I have decided to sit tight and let the summer take its course – mentally it is better to have too much than not enough.

The first dressing of nitrogen was applied in the first week of March, a bit later than I was hoping for but the fields were just too wet. All grassland has had 70 units of nitrogen, except 60 acres where we have just spread 250,000gal of dirty water, which is equivalent to about 30-40 units of nitrate.

We have not applied phosphate on grassland for two years, so we decided to soil test every field on the farm and compare them with tests done in 1995. Three fields dropped one index from three to two, the rest were the same as last time. MAP 12% nitrogen 52% phosphate was spread at 1cwt/acre on fields with lower index.

The milk price is beginning to give me some concern. Looking at our dairy costings in Mar 1996, margin over concentrate stood at £1506. This increased to £1600 by September. However, in five months we have dropped £14/month on average. At present margin over concentrate stands at £1530. Out of a yield of 6800 litres, 4737 litres comes from forage. Our cost structure which will come under close scrutiny over the next few weeks.n

Theres too much maize and grass silage left on farm this spring, reckons John Helliar. But he thinks it might come in useful if theres another drought this summer.

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John Helliar

8 November 1996

John Helliar

John Helliar has a 130ha (320-acre) farm on the Longleat Estate, near Warminster, Wilts. He milks 180 cows, rears his own replacements and grows 45ha (110 acres) of maize, which comprises 70% of the winter ration. 1500 store lambs are put out on winter grass keep in October for sale as fat lambs in January/February.

IT just goes to show that annual rainfall figures (34in) are not very meaningful when it comes to summer grazing.

I have just added up the months of January to the end of October to find we have only 19in compared with 25in for the same period last year – the year of the big drought.

This took a bit of believing but when I looked at the critical summer months (April to end of August) we had 5in in 1995 and 10in in 1996, the average for the previous four years was 11.5in, with 1992 being the wettest at 15in.

So reflecting on our summer grazing we have just about had enough grass, but only just. We applied 260 units of N on the grazing area, the last going on in mid-August. We did consider a late application in September but it was still very dry – 1in of rain compared with 5in in September 1995. If we are going to extend the grazing into November we will have to do some major work on our cow tracks. They are okay in the dry weather but by the end of the summer there is a build-up of cow manure and soil off the fields, which cows do not like when it gets wet. This will be our project for 1997.

This year summer concentrates to fresh calvers has been cut back by 2kg (6.5 down to 4.5kg). We looked at Milkminder figures for September 1995 and compared them with September 1996. Looking at June, July and August calvers overall we were 1 litre a cow down, but the 40 heifers were slightly up. I hope our breeding policy is paying off; the milk from forage has gone from 4000 to 4300 litres.

The maize harvest started on October 1 with just eight acres of Botanis being cut, enough to allow us to clamp it for two weeks before last years crop ran out. It was green but the cobs seemed fit with 28% dry matter. So, rightly or wrongly, we delayed cutting the rest for two weeks, but as usual rain held up the contractor so it was three weeks before we started again.

Overall the crop yielded very well. Best was Botanis at 17t/acre at 30% DM, and Dartis and Sovereign at 14t/acre at 36% DM. I was not surprised about the latter two because they suffered badly from scorch caused by spraying Bromortril in the middle of the day. At one time the crop looked like it had been sprayed with Gramozome.

The 1600 sheep have all arrived and put to three farms. Average price was £42.50, £7 more than last year. Over the past three years the price of lambs has increased by 50%. This years selling price will have to be £55 plus to make it worthwhile.n

The 1600 sheep have arrived – averaging £42.50, £7 a head up on last year says John Helliar.

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