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Blue Bags Grow Better Crops


British Dairying

First featured in British Dairying: June 2015 Edition


Matching land potential to animal needs coupled with an open mind to alternative crops is seeing Gloucestershire livestock producer David Merrett get the most out of forage from him 750ac farm.


The core of the business for David Merrett, who farms in partnership with his parents Robert and Janet, is a housed dairy herd of 260 cows and about the same number again as followers.  On top of this, he manages a 45-cow suckler herd as well as dairy calves that are grazed outside from April to November.

With a 9,000 litre production target, it is essential that David can supply dairy cows with the highest quality forage.  However, not all of the farm can produce this all year round so the beef cattle make use of any feed not suitable for dairy production.

David aims to grow as much feed as possible on farm which has meant looking carefully at how he uses his land to produce forage and grazing.

'About five years ago we increased animal numbers so we quite simply had to produce more forage' explains David.  'We set ourselves a testing target to produce 25% more forage across the whole farm'.

Simply acquiring more land wasn't an option- aside from the cost, the farm is bound by the River Severn, M5 and A38 so David set out to meet the target with the land he already had.


Mix of Soil Types


'There's quite a mix of soil types on the farm, some is very good for producing forage crops, other parts are quite heavy and can stay waterlogged for quite a while.'

'First of all we did a lot of reseeding as new leys with up-to-date grass varieties can provide the quality and quantity my animals need.  I concentrated on the better ground to begin with as this had the most potential to add more to overall forage production'.

Silage for dairy production now comes from temporary pasture and recent reseeds to guarantee it is the right quality.  'We usually take the first cut of our better silage in early May, and also take a second and third later on in July and September'.

Producing high quality silage on farm reduces the amount of bought in compounds needed to hit the 9,000 litre target.  But not all David's land is good for producing dairy quality silage.  'On the wetter river soils, we have to hold back until mid or late May and this silage is generally only suitable for the beef cattle.'

Rather than modify the ration to fit poorer quality silage into milk production, has has the right mix of enterprises to use the variety of forage quality produced accordingly.  It works out as a cost saving and good way to spread risk across different markets so the business isn’t wholly dependent on the milk price.

CF Fertilisers adviser Ross Leadbeater works closely with David to put together a fertiliser plan that maximises the potential of the land and puts slurry and manure to good use.

“The main crop on farm is grass silage and the three cut system is quite hungry for Nitrogen,” explains Ross. “The biggest yield comes at the first cut so the first dressing was critical to achieve lots of early season growth.”

This season’s recommendation was a first dressing of 250 kg/ha SingleTop (27-0-0-12) in early April to deliver the yields Mark needs. Applying a product with Sulphur is important as it maximises Nitrogen uptake and is crucial for protein formation which translates into final milk yield.

“Ahead of the second cut we’ll also add Phosphate and Potash to top up what goes on from the slurry during the winter, he’ll apply this as 250 kg/ha MultiCut Sulphur (23-4-13-7).”


Three forage targets


“The third and final cut is the lowest yielding so the Nitrogen rate is cut to 200kg of SingleTop which is 54kg N/ha.”

Grass is the staple feed supply on farm, but David, with some support from Ross, has experimented with a number of other crops with three targets in mind: to improve the ration, to spread workload and to improve soil structure.

“On the farm we try to be embrace new things, not all of them are a total success but overall we do see some real benefits for the livestock and the business.”

Maize is a cost effective crop but on David’s heavier land harvesting it can be difficult it wet autumns as well as damaging soil structure and making a mess of the roads in the village. As an alternative, he grows around 60 acres of wholecrop spring barley on heavy land. He brings this in mid-summer when ground conditions are good for traveling and reduces the risk of soil damage.


Under-sowing wholecrop


Not content with only a spring barley crop, David has tried sowing other crops along with it: “We under-sowed the spring barley with peas – it yielded well at around 10-11 tonnes/acre fresh weight but weed control was difficult and the birds were also a nuisance so I probably wouldn’t do it again.”

Undersowing with grass was more successful, after whole cropping, grass grows in the stubble so the land can be used for grazing relatively soon. Sheep are bought in on tack to graze the land over winter as they do a good job of encouraging pasture development and tillering, this is important so that the land makes a full transition from stubble to pasture.

“We’ve also tried a number of protein crops like red clover, we haven’t managed to replace all bought in protein yet but it’s a good target to have. The next step will be to try lucerne which other farmers are now using as a high protein crop.”

Overall, David focuses on finding the forage crops and animals which work best for his land, rather than choosing a production system and forcing the land to meet the requirements. He also goes to great lengths to maximise the growing season by taking multiple cuts and growing multiple crops during the year.

“If you look at the costs of production for dry matter, then some of the alternative crops stack up quite well in comparison to second and third cut silage,” (SEE GRAPH) says Ross Leadbeater of CF Fertilisers.

“But when you move into other crops be aware of the different fertiliser requirements, some fodder crops like fodder beet (110kg N/ha) and stubble turnips (80 kg N/ha) have quite high Nitrogen demands, even at soil Nitrogen index 2,” cautions Ross.

For anyone looking to introduce similar changes on their holding, David concludes with this advice: “You have to take small steps and find out what works for you – you can’t jump from one system to another overnight.”


Forage production cost/ feed cost