Addressing farm soil quality

Addressing soil and cow health has helped one Cheshire farm cut feed costs by 4.37p/litre and increase milk from forage by 1,321 litres a cow a year.

Getting more milk from home-produced forage should be the aim on any dairy farm looking to boosts profits, but farmers could be fighting a losing battle if soil performance is not up to scratch.

Two years ago, brothers Neil and Nigel Matthews, Poplar Hall Farm, Chester, were experiencing problems with low forage use and poor cow health and fertility in their herd of 230 Holsteins.

Dairy consultant Phil Clarke from P and L Agriconsulting was subsequently brought in to address cow body condition and he identified forage quality as a major influencer to reduced cow health and performance.

Rising costs

“One of the reasons cow condition was suffering was because forage was not providing enough energy,” says Mr Clarke. “As a result, more cake was being bought in to maintain yields and cows were more stressed. And all this was happening against a backdrop of falling milk price.”

Feed costs were at about 8p/litre and rising as the farm found themselves buying in more additives and protected fats. “In 2010, we decided we wanted to cut out yeasts and fats, but the only way to take out fats is to make better use of forage – something which is even more important as feed costs rise.”

However, to do so, the farm needed to get to the root of the problem. They agreed to host a soils day at the farm and it was this day that proved to be a major turning point for the business.

Independent consultant, Jo Scamell from Ground Level Nutrition, explains that analysis results from an example soil sample from Poplar Hall Farm showed soil could be the cause of many of the cow health and production issues being experienced by the brothers.

Soil compaction

Initial forage mineral analysis showed very high molybdenum levels, which was affecting copper availability, says Mr Clarke.

And although comprehensive soil analysis showed pH was satisfactory, calcium levels were very low relative to magnesium, Mrs Scamell says. “This aggravated a soil compaction issue, which left the soil inert and the grass unpalatable and high in antagonistic elements, such as iron and molybdenum.”

Excess iron is antagonistic to the availability of other important trace elements such as zinc, whereas high molybedum levels are associated with copper lock-up, which has a negative impact on livestock fertility.

Mrs Scamell explains that copper is related to hormone levels, so low levels can cause weak bulling activity and can result in irregular cycling.

To tackle these problems the physical soil compaction issues were addressed via slit aeration and deep flat lifting. However, Mrs Scamell says the problem would not be solved by tackling this in isolation which explains why the farm had not seen the benefits from previous slit aeration.

“It is not just about physical aeration – you need to get the chemistry of the soil right at the same time. Aerating without correcting the mineral balance may actually cause the soil to slump back into tighter compaction in the long term.”

Soil chemistry

Gypsum (calcium sulphate) was subsequently applied in the autumn at 1.5t/acre to reinstate the calcium-magnesium balance. And by doing so the molybdenum and copper balance was improved in the forage.

In 2009, molybdenum levels were classified “very very high” at 1.91mg/kg, with copper availability at 27.7%. However, in 2010 molybdenum levels were recorded as “average” at 0.61mg/kg. This in turn has improved copper availability to 68%.

Potash levels where also identified as being too high relative to sodium. As a result Mrs Scamell recommended salt be applied at 125kg/ha in the spring and autumn over three years.

This has resulted in a marked improvement in forage palatability, allowing the brothers to easily achieve grazing residuals of 1,400-1,600kg DM/ha, where they had struggled to do this in the past.

“We were wasting a lot more grass and having to top more before we implemented the soil strategy,” says Neil.

Forage use

Mr Clarke continues: “The aim is to try and get more milk a cow as efficiently as we can. And part of this is reducing feed costs for every litre, while maintaining production.”

By improving soil and forage quality, concentrate and dietary supplements have been steadily reduced from 0.32kg/litre to 0.27kg/litre, while overall milk yields have risen, alongside slight gains in butterfat and protein percentage. In turn, cow health and fertility have shown big improvements.

The soil strategy has resulted in a more nutritious forage, with lower levels of antagonists, meaning the cows are under less metabolic stress and able to perform more efficiently, says Mrs Scamell.

“The more palatable forage also means intakes are improved and concentrate levels have been reduced.”

And a move away from umbilical application to slurry injection has meant the Matthews have also seen a better response from slurry than artificial fertiliser and, subsequently, costs have been reduced.

“We’re using about one-third less artificial fertiliser an acre than we were in 2008/09,” says Neil. “Fertiliser costs have been 0.2p/litre less in the last 12 months versus 2009, despite a £100/t increase in fertiliser prices.”

The soil strategy has been combined with a number of other improvements on-farm which have all contributed to the overall gains in health and production.

Poplar farm table

Management Changes

Addressing a significant Starling issue has formed part of the overall aim to get more from forage and keep cows healthy, Neil and Nigel explain.

“Starlings were eating a significant amount of the ration every day and consequently we were seeing a major milk drop.” However, by putting up netting around the feed area they have mitigated the problem and also prevented associated salmonella risk.

Addressing first lactation heifer management has also had a significant role in improving cow health, says Neil.

“Our culling rate in the first lactation was much higher than we wanted – something which was expensive considering we rear all our own replacements.” Heifers are now kept in a separate group during their first year in milk. Although it was initially thought this would cause too much extra work, the Matthews have seen a marked improvement in health, actually reducing problems and workload.



All these factors, together with working alongside RMS technician, Peter Jackson, has helped impact on fertility performance figures (see table). Improvements in overall conception rates from 23-40% have helped drive pregnancy rates up. The benefits of having a separate heifer group are also marked, with the significant gains in first lactation fertility figures.

The fact fertility performance has improved – despite protected fats being removed from the diet – proves with good soil management you can achieve good fertility in high yielders, without expensive fats, says Mr Clarke.

Reduction forage table1 

Take along a soil sample (one spade wide and deep) to the Soil Surgery at next week’s Dairy Event and Livestock Show, to get advice from some of the experts attending.

The event takes place on 6 and 7 September at the NEC, Birmingham.

See more