Farmers Weekly Awards 2021: Grassland Manager of the Year

Mark Housby, Peepy Farm, Bywell, Northumberland

It’s not so long ago that Mark Housby couldn’t tell one species of grass from another. Today, the consistently high quality and uniformity of the swards at Peepy Farm are proof of his considerable skill as a grassland manager.

This, along with a sound business head and an open-mindedness and willingness to keep questioning, learning and experimenting, is what gives him the edge.

Fellow farmers Robert and Jackie Craig had already shown their confidence in Mark’s abilities when they made a substantial investment to get a new dairy herd up and running at the farm under his management.

As well as reseeding the farm with grass, a major overhaul of buildings and grazing infrastructure was needed before the cows arrived.

Building stock numbers early on was considered crucial to get the most from the investment.

Six months into the tenancy, the farm was fully stocked, and a year later it turned a healthy profit.

Farm facts

  • Tenant farm on the Allendale Estate
  • Average annual rainfall of 575mm
  • 200ha (494 acres) milking platform, 56ha (138 acres) across main road for youngstock and silage
  • 460 Irish-New Zealand Friesians
  • Milk supplied to First Milk co-operative
  • Bulls selected for good butterfat and protein and longevity
  • Replacement heifers drawn from spring-calvers; autumn calvers put to British Blue or Wagyu

Technical skill

Until Mark began working with Robert, he thought being a cowman was as far as his farming career would progress.

Joining a dairy discussion group opened his eyes to new possibilities, and a study trip to New Zealand further encouraged him.

He went on to help set up two further discussion groups, and now benchmarks the farm’s performance against all three.

With careful management, the grassland at Peepy Farm sustains the 460 dairy cows through a long grazing season on mainly light soils – from 3 February to 23 December in 2020, and from 26 January this year.

An early start building covers is essential, otherwise the fields get too dry and don’t produce the bulk needed to feed the cows.

Weekly plate meter readings are used to monitor growth and guide use during dry spells, when grass tends to burn.

During the main grazing season, target covers are 3,000kg-plus dry matter (DM)/ha, and residuals are 1,650kg DM/ha. Autumn-calving cows calve outdoors on standing hay at about 4,000kg DM/ha.

Split-blocking calving reduces demand in summer, and stocking rates, while on the low side compared with the farms Mark benchmarks performance against, at 2.4 cows a hectare (one cow an acre), mean the cows are fully fed.

In 2020, the farm grew 12.96t DM/ha and the cows produced 1,266kg of milk solids/ha, while production stands at 6,700 litres a cow a year from 1.4t cake a cow a year.

Adaptability

Mark is adapting his grassland management to the dry conditions by using fewer inputs on more land.

This year, instead of applying fertiliser in early and late March, dressings have followed the cows with 25kg nitrogen/ha after each grazing, provided there is enough moisture.

Composting farmyard manure to create a soil conditioner is also expected to improve soil health.

Fields are very clean but chemical use is sparing, with rag forks and occasional spot spraying preferred.

This approach is helping where Mark has oversown deep-rooting species such as plantain this year to make the leys more resilient in periods of drought.

He is also finding milk yields go up when the cows graze these more diverse swards.

Teamwork

Mark has nurtured a highly motivated and reliable team, with three relief milkers to cover weekends. While each person has a particular area of responsibility, job variation is also seen as important.

A profit-share agreement is being drawn up to enable Mark to start building capital.

Winning ways

  • Excellence in management of grass, cows and labour
  • Clear understanding of the vital role of grass
  • Commitment to First4Milk pledge to earth, people and animals
  • Action to reduce nitrogen inputs
  • Willingness to embrace new ideas
  • Skilled team playing a full part in day-to-day running of the farm
  • Clear vision for future

A word from our independent judge

“Peepy Farm combines all the elements of a quality grassland farm with a major focus on soils. Pastures are consistently good, measured regularly and well-allocated, with a stocking rate in line with the quantity of grass grown, and a plan to reduce nitrogen applications.”
Gareth Davies, independent grassland adviser

Finalists

  • Bill and Suzanne Harper, Trepoyle Farm, North Tamerton, Cornwall
  • Richard Rogers, Bodrida Farm, Anglesey

Read about the finalists

The Farmers Weekly 2021 Grassland Manager of the Year Award is sponsored by Germinalgerminal logo

Farmers Weekly’s farming awards celebrates the very best of British agriculture by recognising hard-working and innovative farmers across the UK.

Find out more about the Awards, the categories and sponsorship opportunities on our Awards website.

Farmers Weekly Awards 2022

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