GRASS measuring and budgeting has given a Welsh dairy farmer the confidence to change his fertiliser policy, reducing input costs by £20,000 a year.
Huw Williams milks 250 autumn-calving Holstein Friesians at Ffordd Las, near Ruthin, where feed from high quality grazed grass and silage drives production.
He shares his grass growth data through the Farming Connect Welsh Pasture Project, measuring grass weekly to inform decision making on grazing allocation.
It has transformed the way he farms. “It has shown me what is possible. If someone had told me a few years ago how much milk I could produce on this farm from grass I would have laughed in their face but having the data has shown what we can achieve.”
Williams farms 177 hectares (ha) in partnership with his brother, Clwyd, and their parents, Elwyn and Gwenan. Clwyd runs a milking herd on a similar system on another farm, Plas Mawr.
They are fourth generation dairy farmers and, like the families that farmed before them, grass underpins milk production and with the recent introduction of herbal leys, they have created a continual grazing platform even in dry conditions.
At Ffordd Las, the grazing platform is stocked at 4.2 livestock units/ha, with the herd at grass from mid-February until the beginning of November but with cows housed three weeks before calving from 20 August and the far-off dry cows used to manage the covers.
At 0.8ha – 1.6ha, the majority of fields are small, allowing 12-hour grazing breaks without sub-division in many.
The aim is to close the farm in November at covers of 2100kg DM/ha. When grass growth kicks off in the spring, Williams targets covers of 2700kg to turn the herd into, grazing to a residual of 1600kg.
He uses a plate meter to collect grass data, inputting this into a computer program to calculate the average cover and growth rates for that week. The information is uploaded into a grass planner to enable long-term budgeting.
“We can see what size covers we are going to have and plan our fertiliser and feed requirements around that,’’ he said.
It gave him the confidence to apply a biological product containing a collection of nitrogen (N)-fixing bacteria instead of granular fertiliser. It is sprayed onto grass, converting atmospheric N and N from organic matter into readily available ammonium for the crop.
“It has cut our fertiliser bill by £20,000 a year,” said Williams.
It is applied at the end of March and the end of June and has resulted in no granular fertiliser being used on the grazing block for the last two years.
It has also reduced synthetic fertiliser use on the silage ground to 50kg/acre of protected urea and sulphur annually.
Williams said, “Last year we used it on the silage ground and, although we didn’t get quite the growth we have had previously, when it is balanced against the cost savings it is something we are planning to stick with.
“It needs to be put on with slurry though, a starter N, and either just before it rains or when it is raining.”
A high percentage of clover in the leys is also key to reducing reliance on ammonium nitrate. Williams said “By not applying N the clover is stronger, the roots are stronger.”
Slurry bugs have been added to the lagoon for the last 13 years to enable more of the nutrients to be made available to the grass plants. “There is also less smell, less time spent mixing, less crusting and improved soil biology,’’ Williams has observed.
Data shared with the Farming Connect Welsh Pasture Project shows that the farm grew 8.34tDM/ha to October 23rd 2023. The drought took its toll on grass availability in 2022, with production down to 7.5tDM/ha compared to 9.8tDM/ha in 2021.
The farm has a mixture of light shallow soils and heavier clay which allows growth in wetter and drier periods.
It is those drier months that the business is protecting itself against by growing 7ha of herbal leys, inspired by a Farming Connect farm walk on a farm growing herbal leys.
“The walk was during a dry spell and the only fields that were green were the herbal leys,’’ Williams recalls.
Williams’ herbal leys have also performed well, but in 2024 he plans to allow the leys to grow longer before grazing. “I think we were losing some of the benefits by grazing lighter covers.’’
Silage is produced on a five-cut system, with contractors harvesting the first cut in in the first week of May. The aim is to produce high quality silage, with ME averaging 11.5 in 2023 and crude protein 16.5%.
17 ha of wheat is also grown for wholecropping, fed in a Total Mixed Ration (TMR) in the winter with grass silage and a blend. No concentrates are fed in the parlour.
The fields used for growing winter wheat were reseeded with red clover and ryegrass this year using minimum tillage. “This is something we hope to continue to do due to the red clover plant’s ability to fix its own N,” said Williams.
Direct drilling is used to rejuvenate other fields that need it, with HSG3 used on the grazing platform. “I can see from the grass growth data which fields aren’t performing as well, or if weeds are creeping in,” says Williams.
The business sells its milk to Arla, with annual yield averaging 7,500 litres at 4.1% butterfat and 3.4% protein. Milking is in a 20/40 Westfalia parlour.
The herd calves in a 13 week block. Sexed semen is used to produce replacements and the rest of the herd is inseminated to an Aberdeen Angus.
Due to limitations on space, replacements are contract reared off-farm from when they are three weeks old, returning to Ffordd Las approximately a month before they calve at 24 months.
Going forward, Williams says there will be even greater pressure on farmers to produce more from less.
Being part of the Welsh Pasture Project has been very beneficial in achieving that goal, he reckons. Williams said, “By sharing data, I can see what others are growing and I can bounce ideas off those other like-minded farmers.”
Farming Connect Welsh Pasture Project will be looking for new members to join for the 2024 grazing season, please get in touch via 0345 6000 813 if you would like the opportunity to join the project.