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Grassland Challenge Conference 2005

There was lively discussion at the recent Grassland Challenge Annual Conferences in Cornwall and Devon, where the speakers, both farmers and consultants, described options for maintaining farm profitability.

Tom Morris, British Grassland Society national grassland management champion for 2004, shared his enthusiasm for organic dairy farming, cricket and the simple system that he runs on his farm. Sheep producers were encouraged to look at whether they were substituting more expensive feeds for pasture by Leslie Stubbings, sheep consultant, whilst Richard Tudor, a beef producer from Wales, explained the efficiencies that he was concentrating on with his beef suckler herd. Dr Raymond Jones, IGER, Aberystwyth, described how silage inoculants could improve production and Gethin Davies, RSPB and Richard Smith, Environment Agency, covered farmland birds and soil compaction, respectively. Paul Ward, project manager for the Grassland Challenge stated that he hoped that the additional conference held in Zeal Monochorum this year would act as a starting point for extending the project to Devon in the future.

"At a milk price of 17 pence/litre you need utter focus on what you are doing - diversification just diverts your attention to something else," was Tom Morris's opening remark to the conference. Tom is well qualified to make these comments having held 90 games of cricket, two licensed bars and 'pick your own' fruit amongst other activities on his farm.

He now focuses on running 180 cows and followers on 123 grazing hectares on his organic, grass/white clover-based farm. The system maybe low input but he said: "Tracks, water troughs and electric fences are essential to have the confidence to graze the cows outdoors for 11 and a half months of the year." Tom also advocated the use of a back fence to protect pasture re-growth. In response to questions about grazing in wet conditions, Tom commented that he is happy to bring the cows off the pasture after 3-4 hours' grazing and stand them in a yard, but prefers not to give them any supplements, as this reduces their grazing efficiency. In winter, however, the spring calving cows are kept on the hill with silage fed in bales where they fall out of the silage wrapper. Tom believes this gets the cows fit for calving. He is also passionate about giving calves a good start in life, with calves fed yoghurt for their first 12 weeks.

"Schemes out of Europe have driven sheep production for as long as I can remember, now it is up to us to drive costs down," stated Leslie Stubbings. Leslie believes the place to start is to look at the cost of production. With fixed costs this can be particularly difficult. Leslie suggests considering fixed costs along the lines: "If I had to get rid of the sheep, what fixed costs would have to go as well?" As farmers are no longer chasing headage payments, Leslie believes there is an opportunity to re-look at utilising forages and cut costs by cutting supplement use. There are three main areas in utilising more forage, pasture quality, especially the inclusion of clover, animal health eg. internal parasites and the grazing season with extended grazing being an advantage in the South West. Pasture height is the key to utilising pasture. For example, lactating ewes on a pasture of good quality and height of 4cm or above do not need to be supplemented: "Yet if you feed a ewe several kilos of nuts she will eat it. There is plenty of scientific evidence to say how much you need to supplement sheep at different stages in their life," Leslie told conference delegates.

Despite returns from beef in upland farms comparing unfavourably with sheep, Richard Tudor is keeping the family's suckler herd. Richard farms 120 suckler cows and 1,400 ewes in a family partnership in Llyssun, Mid Wales. The suckler numbers are being reduced to 100 to ease pressure on cow housing. With no suckler herd, Richard would only be able to increase sheep numbers slightly. The farm is also suited to sucklers with a free draining hill used to out-winter the cows as long as possible with hay. The aim is to turn around the stores in 12 months using high pasture utilisation, quality silage and good value balanced concentrates. Richard gave conference participants a tour of South America, based on his Nuffield Scholarship. He also conducted an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the UK industry.

"Grass silage can be reasonably well preserved without inoculants, yet they protect the protein from breaking down in silage, which leads to improved animal production," Dr Jones told farmers at the conferences. Feed and forage analysis measures crude protein, which is a mix of ammonia, free amino acids, true protein and other nitrogen products. Stock use mainly true protein for milk and meat production. Dr Jones said that measuring crude protein was fine for pasture analysis where 80% of the crude protein measured is true protein. However in grass silage, the true protein can vary from 50% in silage made without inoculants to 67% in silage made with inoculants. This led to improvement in live weight gain of 0.22 kilograms per day in the research quoted by Dr Jones. With legume silages such as red clover, inoculation is essential, as legumes do not naturally have the bacteria required for fermentation.

Cross breeding offers both production and health and fertility benefits to both low and high input dairy systems according to John Owen of Gelli Aur College, Wales. The high margin per litre herd at the college in 2003 had an empty rate of 30%, with 15% of Jersey cross Friesians in the mainly Holstein herd. The empty rate reduced to 12% with 55% of the herd cross bred in 2005. John admitted 30% empties was high but challenged conference attendees on their own herds' empty rate after 12 weeks of mating. A Scandavian Red cross is currently being considered for the high margin per cow herd as it is becoming harder to make a profit with this herd.

Dr Richard Smith from the Environment Agency outlined steps that farmers can take to reduce soil compaction and run-off from farm land. Aiming to harvest maize in late September when soils are drier and using sub-soiling to break up any soil pans, were Richard's two main suggestions. One conference delegate questioned Richard on the effect of pasture slitting. The reply was that it does not heave the soil to get air into and finding the time to slit soil when it is neither too wet nor too dry is difficult; however it is beneficial in a permanent pasture situation.

There was heated debate with Gethin Davies of the RSPB on the role of predators, especially badgers, on farmland birds. Mr Davis said that the most important issues were the supply of food and nesting sites. These had a greater impact than predators and once in place, the RSPB could then consider the predator problem.

For further information please contact Paul Ward, project officer for Grassland Challenge on 01579 372315.

The Objective One Programme for Cornwall the Isles of Scilly has invested in the Grassland Challenge Project through the European Agriculture Guidance and Guarantee Fund (EAGGF).


Editor's notes:


Clare Morgan
Media Relations Manager
Objective One Partnership Office
Castle House
Pydar Street
Truro TR1 2UD
Mobile: 07973 813647
Telephone: 01872 223439

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