Match Nto soil needs

23 July 1999

Diversification can be a big distraction…

DIVERSIFICATION is frequently portrayed as a path to riches, but it can be a distraction from core business objectives, as one Somerset dairy producer discovered.

Tom Morriss investment in a cricket ground, ponds and fruit at East Lydeard Farm, Bishops Lydeard, diverted his attention from milk, his main enterprise. On the balance sheet of life it was a lot of fun, but now he freely admits his mistakes.

Grazing management now occupies his mind as he tries to meet his objective of making enough money to fund his childrens education, he told BGS summer tour delegates.

"When I get up in the morning I think about grazing grass – what grass my cows will have today and what the paddocks might look like after a nights grazing."

The farm runs 185 cows and followers over 118ha (292 acres), using 55ha (136 acres) of leys and 22ha (54 acres) of permanent pasture, with 15ha (37 acres) of arable and 10ha (25 acres) of fruit. Mr Morris is slightly over-stocked, but that is because calving pattern is being switched from summer-autumn to spring.

Within two years, Mr Morris expects to stop his pick-your-own fruit enterprise. "Maximising income and profit means moving to an all-grass farm."

But the big question is whether he cuts cow numbers to 160 and turns organic, or increases to 220 conventional cows. He is unsure of which way to go but will meet the Soil Association to discuss conversion shortly.

"The thought of milking 210 cows is not making life any easier, but I would make more money and I should have done it 20 years ago."

Comparable farm profit figures, which exclude finance and interest, but include unpaid labour, show profits of 3.19p a litre this year and are projected at 6.46p a litre next year, with milk prices of 20.94p and 19.25p respectively.

Despite a lower milk price next year, he expects to pay off leasing charges on a tractor and with lower finance charges on the parlour and less track work to do, costs will fall.

The switch to all-spring calving should also be complete by next February. "Block calving will make all our lives easier," he says. Other changes have also been made over recent years, such as a move from set stocking pastures to rotational grazing.

To implement this, tracks have been laid extensively giving cows access to rotational clover-rich leys.

"When I re-seed a new area I have to think about where I need tracks so cows can graze it. I will continue to invest in tracks – theyre not worth skimping on."

Mr Morris admits the quality of his first tracks was not good enough. "I used a membrane under bark peelings and overlaying stone." But the membrane clogged and he had to pull them up and start again.

Tracks are important because cows graze higher quality leys which are further from the farm buildings than permanent pasture. Poorer quality permanent pasture is now the preserve of dry cows and youngstock.

Rotating pastures to ensure cows have enough quality grass in front of them is his main concern. "I dont use a platemeter, but judge grass by a seat-of-my-pants approach."

This really means a lot of walking grass and developing an instinct for it. "I walk the whole farm four to five times a week."

Fear for the future

FALLING incomes and low morale among sheep and beef producers means David Norman is concerned whether future generations of his family will be farming his land.

Prices have dropped and costs have gone up, said Mr Norman of Gupworthy farm, Wheddon Cross, Somerset. "Theres little that is going to change, administration charges are increasing, killing charges and farm assurance are always going to be there. Consumers want perfection; thats not going to happen and this reality has to be faced up to."

He is concerned that changing subsidy payments in disadvantaged farming areas from headage to area based will alter hill farms like his on Exmoor, where he keeps 1500 Texel x Mules and 105 sucklers. His sheep incomes have already dropped by 40% in the last two years.

"Subsidy proposals are ghastly and ministers do not realise how they will affect grassland farms in places like Exmoor, which is predominantly difficult grassland."

Those areas could lose over half their payments, he said. But the theory of not having to meet a headage goal and managing land and moorland may be right.

"We have done it before and shouldnt be frightened of being called something else, such as park keepers as we know the environment and what is needed."

Land agent for Exmoor National Park, Chris Hewitt said that it might bring back skills of stockmanship rather than keeping unsustainably high numbers of stock. That may give a marketing advantage from improved quality.

Match Nto soil needs

MORE efficient nitrogen use and environmental management are key factors in grassland management today.

Three farms on the BGS summer tour are participating in an Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research project which aims to target nitrogen inputs to soil requirements.

IGER North Wykes project, currently being tested on 10 farms, will develop a decision support system that can help producers use nitrogen tactically. Participating farms have cut nitrogen by an average of 28%, so far.

The support system model predicts mineral nitrogen in soil and estimates when nitrogen can be used by the sward. The difference between the two is the amount of nitrogen needed.

According to IGER North Weakes Elaine Dukes the aim is to keep soil mineral nitrogen levels down throughout the year. "If a low level of mineral nitrogen is in the soil, less can be leached over winter when drainage occurs."

Applications start later, but begin at a higher rate with 100kg/ha (80 units/acre) nitrogen applied in April. But May would see lower levels of 28kg/ha (22 units/acre) nitrogen because soil mineral nitrogen is rising at this time, she told tour delegates.

"Overall yields have been maintained, although they may have been lower early on."

To measure output and to see whether dry matter yields are maintained, fields are split on participating farms into normal practice and tactical nitrogen use.

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