At the time of our last update, we had just finished harvesting first-cut silage. Well, six weeks on and we have just covered a decent pit of second-cut. The crop was even heavier than first-cut which was reduced due to the long dry period we had in May. Again, we are very happy with the quality as the seed heads were just emerging so it’s just the stuff we’re after for our growing cattle this winter.

Here at Arnage, there is always a pinch point for grass in spring. Ideally, we would be getting calved cows out in mid- to late-April. However, we often have little or no grass around and have to hold them indoors longer than planned. This increases the cost of wintering having to feed the increased demand of the milking cow indoors at a time when shed space is also at a premium.

The shortage of grass can be attributed to two causes – fencing and the sheep.

The fencing situation is something we need to improve if we are to achieve more output from grazed grass. Currently the divisions on the farm are too big and we cannot utilise pasture optimally. This is going to take significant investment in both fencing and water supply over the next couple of years. However, with every extra tonne of grass dry matter utilised worth £140 and the potential for us to utilise between five and six tonnes/ha more than we are currently achieving, this initial investment will be money well spent.

The sheep graze the pasture all winter, leaving little cover for spring. Anything that is retained over the winter and into spring is then needed for ewes at lambing time.

To overcome this problem, we have planted just under 3ha of turnips that will be grazed by the ewes in late December into early February. The idea behind this is to concentrate the ewes in a small area and give the pasture a rest for a couple of months. We are confident that this, along with more structured closing off of paddocks in the back end and early application of nitrogen in spring, will give us more grass at that critical stage come spring.

This would mean we could get freshly calved cows out to grass earlier to highly palatable swards and reduce feed costs further on the farm.

Calving spread is an issue on farm. We still have a few from the spring herd to calve. If you compare a calf born this week to one born at the target turnout date of 20 April, gives the calf born this week 85 days less at pasture than his earlier-born compatriot.

At an average daily gain of 1.2 kg/day, this week’s calf will be at least 102kg lighter come housing time. At a liveweight value of £2.30, this equates to £235 difference in value. Add to this the £2 cost of keeping the cow every day over a 365-day calving interval and suddenly a late calf is not better that no calf at all.

While it would be very simple to remove the bull after 12 weeks this year and have a nice compact calving next spring, this would leave too many culls. To maintain output from the herd and aid cashflow, we will have a 15-week bulling period this year with the possibility of doing some synchronisation with late calvers to try and bring them forward a couple of weeks.

We will then take away the bulls and scan all cows about 40 days afterwards. Anything not in-calf at that stage will be gone through and we will be quite ruthless with culling. If there are some young cows that were very late calvers we may hold them over for the autumn herd.

Ideally we don’t want to have an autumn herd on the farm. Having a sizable arable enterprise we are busy with harvest in the back end of the year.

Again to avoid culling high numbers of cows we will establish a small autumn herd for the next few years and as cows come to the end of their time they won’t be replaced.

On the sheep side, we are not happy with current performance of the flock. Lambing went reasonably well. However, from starting at a scanning rate of 178% we are currently running at just over 125%. We hope to have a first draft of lambs in the next week or so. We feel our ewes are not suited to outdoor lambing especially the more Suffolk type that lambed down to Suffolk.

There were definitely more losses from this combination. Housing for lambing is not really an option on farm at the moment and it’s not a route we want to go down due to labour limitations in springtime.

Therefore, the plan over the next few years is to change to a Mule-type ewe and mate these to terminal Suffolk and Texel sires. We will operate an all-in, all-out system which will keep the whole thing as simple as possible.

The power of data

All six focus farms are beginning to reap the rewards of using farm-generated data to help make management decisions on an ongoing basis.

Be this soil temperature in spring for early application of nitrogen, using EBVs to help select a bull with the traits most required for the herd, turn-out weights, weaning weights or even a simple silage analysis, all help plan for the future success.

Farmers sometimes find it hard to justify investing in weigh scales.

However, with a decent setup costing in the region of one store animal, used correctly they will pay back a hundredfold.

The old saying goes that “knowledge is power”. However, without taking action, knowledge is powerless. Weighing cattle or sheep alone will have zero effect on farm profitability unless you act on the information.

Ask yourself – what average daily live-weight gain am I achieving? What should it be? What is the average weaning weight? What proportion of the cow’s own body weight is she weaning? What is the top third achieving?

What is the bottom third achieving? Is there a certain bull or cow type that is/isn’t performing on farm? Who needs to be culled?

As farmers, we like to think we know our best performers and we often do. However, having the raw data is sitting in front of you will provide that lightbulb moment when you see the unexpected underachievers and the ones that are punching above their weight.