As Cumbrian dairy producer, James Tweedie, begins his herd’s final grazing round he says everything is now geared towards having high quality grass next spring.

The final grazing round is set to start on South Dyke Farm in two weeks’ time when James Tweedie has a target average farm cover (AFC) for his dairy herd’s grazing platform of 2,700kg dry matter per hectare. 

However, realistically, he says the AFC at the start of the final round will fall far short of this optimum, at closer to 2,550kg DM/ha, at the end of what’s been a difficult grass growing season.

“We would normally be building covers at this time of year, but instead, we are just hoping for rain and taking mitigating measures to help see grass through to late November,” he says. 

Farming with his parents, Gordon and Margaret, in the village of Great Salkeld in Cumbria, the farm’s location in the Eden Valley – sandwiched between the Pennines and the Lake District – is actually in a rain shadow.

He says: “No one would believe we don’t get that much rain in Cumbria but a whole lot of rain falls in the Pennines and the Lakes, and we average less than one metre per annum on this farm.”

James Tweedie with with his parents, Gordon and Margaret
James Tweedie with with his parents, Gordon and Margaret

However, this year’s rainfall looks like falling further short, having only so far reached 540mm, which, combined with the farm’s light and dry, sandy, gravelly soils, has hit grass growth. This has been confirmed through the farm’s participation in GrassCheckGB – an industry, academic and levy board collaboration designed to help British farmers improve their grassland management. This reports that although the 120ha (297 acre) grazing platform reached its usual peak growth rate of 120kg DM/ha in spring, growth has been significantly less than normal for the remainder of the season.

“With these yields we managed to get enough silage in for winter but I doubt we’ll have any excess,” he says.

The total farm stretches to 200ha (494 acres), including 80ha (198 acres) of youngstock support ground. Of this, all except 6ha (15 acres) of fodder beet – fed with baled silage to dry cows over winter – is down to grass.

The farm is managed as a grazing-based system for the family’s 370-head dairy herd, of which two-thirds are Friesian and one-third is Jersey, most of which are pure-bred and pedigree. 

Average yield is 5,200 litres at 4.93 per cent fat and 3.81 per cent protein (454kg milk solids) per cow, from a young herd of which a third is currently in its first lactation. 

280 days of grazing

“We’re aiming for more than 90 per cent of their diet to come from home-grown forage, and 280 days of grazing to ensure as much of this as possible is grazed grass,” says Mr Tweedie.

“Our budget is to feed 470kg meal and 300kg dry matter of silage per cow during lactation, but we have significantly exceeded that this year, with meal at closer to 850kg.”

Calving is in a 10-week block, starting on 1 February, so having enough high-quality grass by this date is a key target for this system.

“We like a tight calving block because compact calving makes the best use of grass, as the later calving cows can’t harvest so much over the year,” he says.

Starting the final round

The final grazing round begins on 1 October, which may be earlier than on some farms in a warmer climate, but is integral to the turnout target.

“We can’t start the final round any later because of the risk of frost in autumn – a week of cold nights can really knock grass growth back,” he says.

However, he is confident that fields grazed in the first week of October will have achieved enough growth for grazing again from 1 February, and a wedge of grass will follow behind. 

During this last round he says he hopes to strip-graze the herd twice-a-day through October and once-a-day in November, when they’ll be kept in by night.

“We aim to graze 70 per cent of the platform during October and 30 per cent in November,” he says. “Historically, it would have been 60:40 but the tight spring calving block puts so much pressure on the grass in February, we need to get even more area growing back in October.

“We need to prioritise spring grass as it is more important to our newly calved cows than autumn grass for late lactation cows,” he says.

“In the last round we will break-fence every 12 hours and may back-fence to protect regrowth,” he says. “Each 12-hour allocation will have a target entry cover of 3,500-3,700kg DM/ha and will be grazed down to a 1,500kg DM/ha residual, but potentially slightly lower as we err on the side of having a good clean-out so we achieve really high-quality regrowth in February.

“We find that with high quality grass in spring, the cows return to cycling unbelievably quickly after calving.”

Paddocks will all be closed by 20 November or when average farm cover reaches 2,250kg DM/ha. 

“This is higher than some people choose but again, it comes down to the importance of February grass,” he says. 

Eking out the autumn grass is assisted by selling off stock at this time of year.

“We will sell some surplus heifers and cows in-calf but intend keeping the milking herd at 370-380-head,” he says. 

Reseeding

The opportunity is also taken to reseed swards in autumn, although spring is generally preferred.

“We have probably reseeded 75 per cent of the farm in the last five years, including overseeding with white clover,” he says. “We’ve chosen fields according to their grass yield and not by the age of the sward.”

With the farm’s best swards yielding 18 tonnes DM/ha and the worst at 9-10t/ha, he says there are plenty of fields which have scope to double their performance.

“This autumn we are seeding our first multi-species sward which – with the inclusion of deep-rooting herbs – we hope will give us more drought-resistance in a year like this,” he says.

With perennial ryegrass, white clover, red clover, chicory and plantain in the mix, it is also intended to reduce the need for chemical fertiliser.

“With a range of different heights and leaf sizes you are also capturing more sunlight from different angles, and have a range of rooting depths,” he says. “We hope it will improve the structure, aeration and biodiversity of the soil.

“The seed mix may or may not change as we go forward, but we think it might be the future,” he says. 

 

South Dyke Farm

  • Family run herd of 370 pedigree Friesians and Jerseys 
  • Average yield of 5,200 litres at 4.93% fat and 3.81% ptn (454kg milk solids) 
  • Typically fed 470kg concentrates/cow/year and graze for 280 days
  • Final round target AFC is 2,700kg DM/ha; entry covers are 3,500-3,700kg DM/ha
  • Final grazing round starts 1 Oct and ends 20 Nov (or at 2,250kg DM/ha AFC)
  • All autumn grazing policies are geared towards high quality grass at turnout
  • Cows housed/graze fodder beet for winter and calving begins on 1 Feb in 10-week block

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