Top-notch grassland management delivers milk from forage and sward resilience in a difficult spring on a West Wales farm.

 April 2021 has been a month like no other, and on Pantgwyn Farm, just south of Aberystwyth, the cold, dry conditions will have knock-on effects on grass growth and management throughout the year.

Dairy farmer, Adam Jones says ‘magic day’, when grass growth meets demand, has been significantly delayed, usually being reached on his 500 acre (202ha) holding, on around 20-25 April.

“We are not there yet,” he says, speaking in the first week of May. “But it will happen.”

His optimism stems from good preparation and a lifetime’s experience on his family dairy holding in West Wales, although his apparent lack of concern may reflect around 800 tonnes of grass silage remaining in the clamp from last year.

Cattle on Adam Jones' farm

Observing that quality as well as quantity has also been affected, he says: “The grass would normally shoot off in mid-April and you’d have lush growth, high nitrogen and low fibre, but we haven’t seen any of that.”

Instead, his latest grass analysis, supplied as part of his participation in GrassCheckGB, shows dry matter at 29 per cent, somewhat higher than in a typical spring. With protein at 17 per cent and metabolisable energy (ME) at 12.3MJ/kg DM he remains hopeful of high quality first cut silage.

“As long as we can get sugars up, the silage will be fine,” he says.

Farming 430 spring-calving British Friesian x Jerseys averaging 6,500kg at 4.8 per cent fat and 3.7 per cent protein, a strong emphasis is placed on milk from forage. Just 1.2-1.3 tonnes of concentrates fed per cow per year and an impressive 4,000 litres of milk from grazing and grass silage are testament to the success of this policy. 

Impressive total grass yields help explain this performance, with average production across the 230 acre (93ha) grazing platform of 16t DM/ha in 2019, and 13t DM/ha in a drier 2020.

“We’re not expecting 2021 to be special,” he says, having recorded just 1.3t DM/ha of growth by the end of this April. This compared with 3.4t DM/ha and 2.1t DM/ha in the same four months of 2019 and 2020 respectively.

First cut

First cut would usually have been taken in late April/early May but Mr Jones is waiting for a little more bulk. Plate metering once a week, he says daily growth for the last fortnight’s recordings has averaged 43kg DM/ha. This is noticeably lower than last year on his good grass-growing farm, although ahead of much of the country. 

The main cuts of silage at Pantgwyn will come from the dedicated cutting swards, some lying away from the home farm. First, third and fourth cuts will usually be clamped for milkers and youngstock, while a bulkier, stemmier second cut will be clamped separately for the dry cows. 

“The multi-cut system costs more money as we’re charged by the acre,” he says. “But there’s a big difference in ME and D value, and the milk in the tank at the end of the day more than justifies the cost.” 

Long-term grassland management

Close attention to detail in grassland management has supported the farm’s high forage yields and brings resilience to its swards in difficult conditions. Reseeding large acreages over the past five years has played a significant part in this, with high sugar grass mixes always chosen. These all comprise Aber varieties, including a cutting mix of tetraploid hybrid and perennial ryegrasses (HGS 2) plus red clover; a long-term grazing mix of perennial ryegrasses and white clover (HSG 3); and a diverse perennial ryegrass and white clover mix suited to dairy herds with rotational grazing on silage aftermaths (HSG 4).

Although rejuvenating grassland is a continual feature of the farm’s pasture management, complete reseeding has been required across the newly acquired land.

“We have bought extra land in the past five or so years, supporting the herd’s expansion from 120 head,” he says. “Half of the new farm had been out of production so we have ploughed and reseeded to create productive swards, which is essential to achieve a return on investment.”

The whole farm is also aerated every spring and any sward looking poached or open will receive extra seed, scratched in with a grass harrow. This helps maintain the structure and health of the heavy loamy and clay soils, also improving drainage on a farm which receives 60 inches of rainfall a year. 

Similar attention is given to soil nutrition, with each field tested for phosphorus, potassium and magnesium as well as pH every other year. The fertiliser and liming programme is designed to correct any imbalance, although this year, while the whole farm received nitrogen, only silage ground required any P and K.   

A policy of on-off grazing also helps avoid soil damage, while pre-mowing takes place at some point each season although is unlikely to be needed until later this year.

For the most part, the grazing rotation is designed for flexibility, with fields, ranging from four to 27 acres, split to accommodate the milking herd for 24-hour breaks.

“There is no paddock system as such and no blueprint – everything is done by eye,” he says. “For instance, if I want four acres but have six, I will put up a fence, or if I need more I will join fields together. I put up a fence every day.

“Mid-season grass will go to seed fast and decisions are made day by day,” he adds. “I could not write a grazing plan for a week when grass is growing at over 100kg DM/ha/day.”

Target entry covers for grazing are 3,600kg DM/ha which is said to maximise the value of the third leaf. 

“It’s true that grass grows grass, and we think the higher cover boosts growth by around 20kg DM/ha,” he says. “However, the challenge then can be grazing the residual down to the target of 1,600kg DM/ha, although having no buffer feed through the main grazing season helps keep residuals tidy.”

Any paddock in the herd’s grazing platform which reaches a cover approaching 4,000kg DM/ha will be skipped from the rotation, and instead will be mowed and baled.

With 530 livestock units (including youngstock and calves) supported by the farm in total, equating to over one LSU/acre, the flexible policy is clearly working well. 

And although this year may present a particular a challenge, Mr Jones is confident grass growth will improve. “I’m sure growth rates will level out,” he says. “We will probably have a hot spell and growth will go mad; I expect we’ll take first cut within a week.”

GrassCheckGB is a collaborative grass monitoring project run by CIEL (Centre for Innovation in Livestock), the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and Rothamsted Research, and supported by AHDB Beef & Lamb, QMS, HCC, Germinal GB, Handley Enterprises, Sciantec Analytical, Waitrose & Partners and Datamars Livestock.