Improving grassland quality to save money

Soil testing the entire farm every year, changing from set stocking to paddock grazing and volunteering as a guinea-pig for a new grassland management group – the green stuff is a real priority for dairy farmer Clive Gurney. JOANNE PUGH went to meet the man with a passion for grass.

When Clive Gurney reviewed his business last year he realised things would have to change if he and son, Andrew, wanted to continue dairy farming.

He decided that by both increasing production and decreasing costs, a future could be secured and, not wanting to do things by halves, added 50 milking cows to his pedigree Holstein herd overnight – 300 cows are now being milked at Abbey Court Farm, Wigmore, north Herefordshire.

That still left the issue of decreasing costs and so, when Mr Gurney was offered the chance to be the guinea-pig for a new grassland management group, he leapt at the chance.

He saw grass as a very important asset and thought that if the Grassright group could help him increase the quality of what he grew on his farm, then it would be an ideal way to save money.

“We’re under a lot of pressure and we’ve got to be more and more efficient,” said Mr Gurney.

“Our job is to convert the sun’s energy into food while keeping overheads as low as possible and, in my head, I thought we could find a better way to do that.”

Mr Gurney identified a real cost benefit if he could increase his dry matter content per hectare from 14 to 18 tonnes, purely by improving grassland management, and realised he could benefit from some outside advice.

The newly-formed Grassright group was created by four companies to offer an integrated approach to grassland management for dairy, beef and sheep farmers by providing best practice and technical advice.

Through Grassright, Mr Gurney has access to four industry experts – Neil Matson of Advanta Seeds advises on planting, Vaughan Stansfield of Dow Agrosciences on weed management and herbicides, Mike Denney of Kemira GrowHow on nutrient management and fertilisers and James Woolway of Opico on machinery.

“The problem for a lot of people is often the lack of a long-term strategy,” said Mr Stansfield. “Here, we’re working from the basics up and taking away the mystery behind it all.

“A lot of it is knowing what order to do things in, like when to spray docks in a field that’s been reseeded. It’s having a bigger picture in mind to make things more cost effective.”

Mr Gurney moved to the 400-acre Abbey Court Farm nine years ago. He has steadily built up from 200 to 250 cows before jumping to 300 in November.

The cows are fed on a TMR of home-grown grass silage, maize, wholecrop and crimped wheat and producing an average of 8,900 litres, around 5,000 of which are from forage.

Mr Gurney does not like to produce high volumes of milk from bought-in inputs. He said in the past he had pushed cows to the 9,500-litre mark but now thought the focus should be on profitability and not yields. “It’s got to be profitable,” he said. “Otherwise it’s not a business anymore.”

In terms of grazed grass Mr Gurney made a drastic change this spring – when the cows were turned out it was to paddock grazing instead set stocking. He felt this would enable him to manage the grass better and reduce muck build-up and contamination.

Around half of the farm is dedicated to grass and from this area Mr Gurney has created 19 paddocks, all of which are round six acres, so the dairy herd can be rotated. Dry cows are used to clean off the paddocks, which are also topped after four grazing cycles to keep them tidy. It was with all this in mind that the Grassright group came to the farm to consider how improvement could be made. Mr Matson assessed each grass field in terms of yield and feed quality and identified two fields that should be prioritised – one that needed urgent reseeding and one that could be vastly improved by overseeding. Mr Woolway provided a tined grass harrow with an air seeder that could do both these jobs, which Andrew Gurney undertook.

“We’re under a lot of pressure and we’ve got to be more and more efficient. Our job is to convert the sun’s energy into food while keeping overheads as low as possible and, in my head, I thought we could find a better way to do that.”

Clive Gurney

Both father and son are happy with the 20-acre field that was reseeded in April, especially as it had to cope with such extremes of wet and dry weather. Mr Stansfield viewed the field in early June and recommended it be sprayed for weeds as soon as possible, as the establishment phase is the most cost effective time to deal with both invasive and perennial weeds.

Knowing that the reseeded field would have to be treated for weeds, Mr Gurney was advised not to plant a grass and clover mix as the clover would not survive being sprayed. He plans to overseed with 30 per cent clover in the coming month, before the sward becomes too thick for the clover to establish itself.

Another 20-acre field with poor grass coverage was overseeded at one-third rate with occasional flood-damaged bare patches completely reseeded. Andrew said he was surprised how easy it was to do this with the Opico machine, and how accurate he could be.

The environment is very important to Mr Gurney but he will not allow his participation in Countryside Stewardship or the Entry Level Scheme to allow his farm to become less profitable.

When he first moved to Herefordshire he identified some of the poorer parts of the farm to take out of production and dedicated nine acres to a wetland area to provide a habitat for waders, such as curlew and grebe, and a feeding ground for peewits.

“We were quite happy to do that because we do need to farm the rest of the farm properly,” he said. “I demand that the business parts of the farm – which is some of the best land in the country – is used productively.”

In order to maintain this balance between high output and environmental care, Mr Gurney has enjoyed working with Mr Denney from Kemira GrowHow to make sure the fertiliser he buys is used ‘more efficiently than ever’.

The pair have ensured that muck and slurry are utilised to the full and that the fertiliser applied does not provide more than the land needs, especially in terms of phosphate and potash. Abbey Court Farm is close to a waterway and Mr Gurney is very keen not to create any diffuse pollution. “The River Teme is one of the cleanest in the country and we’re determined not to have an effect on that,” he said.

This spring Mr Gurney just applied straight nitrogen to his grassland and was discussing with Mr Denney the possibility of applying NPK at rate of 25:0:13 plus 7 sulphur later in the season.

Mr Gurney soil tests every field on his farm every year. He said this is because he has not been at the farm for very long and, before he arrived, the soil was very poor and had a particularly low pH value. When Mr Gurney moved to Abbey Court Farm it had only recently been converted to a dairy farm, having spent the previous 30 years in a continuous rotation of wheat and potatoes.

Mr Denney said this regular soil testing is a huge help to him in his job of balancing nutrient requirements with slurry and fertiliser applications, but knows it is something many farmers cannot justify doing.

“It is better to do the whole farm every three years than one-third of the farm once a year, which is a common practice,” he said. “Doing the whole farm creates a much greater focus.”

In addition to having regularly updated soil testing statistics, Mr Gurney also keeps detailed records and soil management plans. He does not see this as an inconvenient part of cross compliance but a vital tool in his grassland management.

To him being able to plan ahead and have a clear management structure is essential, and something he can do with more confidence now he is involved with the Grassright group.

He said he now has a really positive and enthusiastic attitude towards grass and that having a clear plan means he no longer worries about spending time and money on it because he knows he is being effective and increasing profitability.

“Everybody needs a system,” he said. “There’s no point just going in and ploughing it up because we think that’s what we should do.”

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