For one Cheshire dairy farmer, taking weekly grass measurements has revolutionised his grass utilisation on-farm and is helping to maximise milk from forage.

The importance of good grassland management and its impact on cow productivity is often overlooked, but one Cheshire farmer is making it a priority, and seeing improvements in milk yields as a result.

“Grass is very important to our farm. It’s the cheapest form of feed available for our cows, and therefore the most cost-effective way to produce our milk,” says Alastair Cliff, who, along with his wife Gill and their two children, milks 470 cows across two tenant farms on Bolesworth Estate, in Cheshire.

“We took over the tenancy at Burwardsley Hall 12 years ago, followed by Bank Head Farm five years later. Having run them as two separate calving herds; one autumn calving and the other spring calving, my herd manager, James Williamson and I, have recently decided to combine them and strive to increase our production and are aiming to have 4,000L/cow from forage within the next 12 months.

They now milk twice a day through two herringbone parlours, producing on average 7,000L/cow, with 3,500L/cow coming from forage.

“We take three to four cuts of silage each year, which is fed with a blend to our cows, so we rely heavily on our grass to achieve maximum milk outputs.”

Grassland management

“We have found that the time, effort that we put into reseeding and closely monitoring and measuring our grassland is being repaid through milk outputs, so grass remains the priority for us going forward,” says Mr Cliff.

“We reseed 10% to 12% of the grassland each year, across the two farms. “When choosing mixtures to reseed with, I like to consult with Wynnstay who can provide advice on which mixes would best suit the farm needs.”

Adam Simper, Wynnstay grass and root seed product manager and Wynnstay sales specialist, Sarah-Jane Baldwin, have aided Mr Cliff for a number of years, and Mr Simper explains that it is great to see a farm take such a keen interest in their grassland “This year, they opted for a cut and graze mix with no clover, which is a flexible mixture that will provide two quality cuts of silage, as well as a quality aftermath grazing”

Mr Cliff adds that they also soil sample all the year round to ensure there are sufficient nutrients available. “As a rule of thumb, we apply 113kg/ha of CF SingleTop fertiliser on each field following the grazing rotation.

“Slurry is applied to the silage-making fields, whereas the grazing fields received an application of dirty water once the cows have moved onto the next ley. The dirty water is a waste product of the slurry, and is generally less than 3% dry matter. This means that it’s absorbed into the soil at a faster rate than slurry, so we can keep a tight grazing rotation to efficiently use all the fields.”

Monitoring grass performance

Mr Cliff explains that his cows are out by mid-February through to when AI begins in mid- November, weather depending.

“We like to have the cows out at grass for as long as possible, so monitoring pastures and accurate measuring with a grass plate meter throughout the grazing season is a vital part of our weekly management regime.”

“A plate meter been a great addition to our kit,” he says. “We have always measured each field weekly, this new plate meter also records total height and a number of measurements, along with calculating average height and average cover.

“We can record grazing dates, plus soil temperature and rainfall storing data on the cloud software, so myself and James can monitor both farm’s grazing platforms and access the programme anywhere via our smartphones.”

Mr Cliff uses the tools as an indicator as to when cows should be moved onto the next field, as well as monitoring the nutritional value of the grass.

“If we didn’t have the quality of the leys we have on-farm, or ensure that we graze efficiently and produce the quality silage that we do, we would not be able to achieve these figures without the use of more bought in feed.”