The second year of the programme got off to a bad start, with a difficult spring calving last year. Our losses were too high. The most frustrating thing about it was not being able to attribute the problem to one source. We had a few cases that were just bad luck, with one calf smothering due to the amniotic sack getting stuck on its head. We took blood samples from numerous cows to check for mineral and trace element deficiencies, but nothing ever showed up.
This poor calving is reflected in the rearing percentage. At 78%, it is a long way short of where we need to be in the coming years.
Despite this we have managed to increase gross margin from £264/cow to £296/cow. This is due to a £75/cow reduction in winter feed and bedding costs. Having the cows on a relatively dry diet of ammonia-treated straw meant we were able to get great utilisation out of the woodchip bedding. Cow condition was also really good coming into winter, so we were able to utilise some of this to cheapen the cows’ winter diet slightly.
While we haven’t done much different this year compared with last, thankfully things have been much better, resulting in more calves live on the ground.
It’s hard to imagine two years being so different. Of the 36 cows that calved this spring we had three sets of twins. As it stands, we have 38 live calves out at grass. When things are going right farming can be such an enjoyable job.
We have had to assist very few of the cows at calving, which we hope will translate into a tighter bulling period this year. There is a direct negative correlation between the degree of assistance at calving and days for a cow to return to heat. Therefore, the more they can get on and do it themselves, the better it is for everyone involved. The Limousin calves were coming at a comfortable birth weight of 32-37kg.
We managed to achieve an early turnout again this spring due to decent weather conditions, with cows and calves out to grass 24-48 hours after calving. Not only are calves healthier outside, but it also means a great saving in feed and bedding. As a result, we are carrying surplus silage into next year – something we never thought possible in November, given the conditions last year.
Cows and calves grazing at Drumforber.
Like most farms, we have enjoyed decent spring grass growth. Having so much stock out early in spring worked brilliantly and although we were running close to a grass shortage when the temperatures dropped in late spring, by the end of May we were taking out surplus grazing as baled silage.
We made first-cut silage on the 24 May. Silage ground received 440kg/ha of 24:4:14 fertiliser. We did try treating some silage ground with fresh digestate, but the application rate of product to achieve the nitrogen rate we were looking for was not high enough.
In total, we took 435 bales from 40 acres on the first cut. This is nearly 200 bales more than last year, with just eight extra acres cut – again highlighting the difference between the two years.
We are satisfied that it will be good-quality stuff and it is off early to allow for a second cut
After cutting, we did give the cows a graze around the headlands to tidy up the spare grass.
While the forecast was mixed, we saw a 48-hour window and took our chance. Luckily, it worked out just fine. Had we put it off we would have been another week or 10 days waiting for weather. We are satisfied that it will be good-quality stuff and it is off early to allow for a second cut, where required.
This winter was also a first, as we brought in some grazing sheep onto the grass. The soil is quite heavy here at Drumforber and it can be very hard to achieve decent clean-outs of paddocks in the tail end of the year, when conditions are not ideal. Bringing sheep in is definitely a way to overcome this problem.
The sheep ate right down to the base of the plants and boosted growth on these paddocks in spring
They started on last year’s reseed and walking across the field now, it is amazing how well it has thickened out. They also ran across some older grass to tidy it up and the performance from it through spring was also surprising. There was an old dead mass of material at the bottom of the sward that the cattle would not clean out. The sheep ate right down to the base of the plants and boosted growth on these paddocks in spring. While they were only on the farm until the turn of the year, they did a great job tidying up the grazing ground.
Plan for this year
The plan is to continue to try to build commercial cow numbers. It takes time, especially as we are quite picky when it comes to females that we will breed from. However, we hope to push cow numbers once again, despite the setback of last spring.
We have tried to minimise the impact and use it as an opportunity to cull cows that had lost calves, and freshen up the herd by bringing in more heifers into the system. This has been quite successful, as we are able to achieve a similar cull cow price to what a yearling heifer would achieve.
Adviser comment – Declan Marren
Travelling the countryside the past week or so, it is clear to see a lot of seed heads appearing in some paddocks. We cannot expect stock to perform optimally when grazing such swards. Having a few paddocks headed out in the grazing rotation should not be seen as poor grassland management. Despite the best efforts, there will come a stage in the season when seed heads will appear in at least some of the grazing rotation. There are three options for dealing with this:Remove as baled silage – this is a quick and effective way to reset the paddock and make some silage at the same time. Remember, if there are seed heads the quality will not be excellent, but it should be more than adequate for dry cows next winter. This is the best option where you have a lot of grass ahead of you in the rotation and growing conditions look favourable over the coming fortnight.Graze and top afterwards – where you do not have sufficient grass ahead of stock, the best option is to remove it as baled silage. Topping, while not a profitable pastime, can have its place at this time of year on a proportion of ground. What is important when topping is that you are actually cutting the grass low enough to reset the sward. Many flail toppers will not achieve the cut height required to have a positive effect on subsequent grazing quality. Where possible, topping should be carried out with a disc mower, cutting as low as you would cut a silage sward.Pre-mow and graze – This may not be an option for many, but has its place in certain circumstances. Where grass supply is not excessive ahead of stock, there is an option to pre-mow sections of a paddock and strip-graze. Ground conditions need to be good for this method to be successful. Remember that this option forces stock to eat grass that they would not selectively graze, so performance will reflect this.