A dairy farm's efforts to create a robust milk production system

A low-risk forage management policy that delivers high yields of top quality feed has underpinned a Somerset dairy farm’s efforts to create a robust milk production system.

Aiming for consistently high yields of top quality milk is one thing, but achieving and maintaining them is another. At Pyrland Farm, near Taunton, the Read family place great emphasis on risk reduction to help the business deliver on both counts.

A decade ago the Reads decided to house their Holstein herd, which now numbers 260 cows, full time. This was partly to optimise control over forage production to help meet their target of achieving one-third of milk output from home-grown supplies.

With an average lactation yield of 12,000 litres per cow, all on a competitive premium liquid milk contract with Müller Tesco, as little as possible is left to chance. Forage quality, as much as yield, is critical.

“We look to maximise milk from forage, as it is more efficient, cost effective and better for the cows,” says Harry Read, who farms with his parents James and Mary.

“We aim for 4000 litres/cow from our grass and maize silages. We were a little below that last year due to the effect of very dry spring on grass silage quality. We had a poor second cut, but the last couple of cuts did help make up for that.”

Grass silage production is based on perennial ryegrass leys, which are renewed every four years. Some one-year Italian ryegrass leys are also grown to help maximise fodder supplies.

A multi-cut silage system is employed, with four or five cuts taken a season where possible, starting in early May, producing a high dry matter, high protein silage.

Italian ryegrass also helps maximise the amount of first-year maize – only about 15% is a second crop.

“We minimise consecutive maize crops – it’s better for crop health and we don’t like leaving the ground bare over winter, so we’d rather harvest the maize early and establish a grass ley straight away,” says Harry.

“Growing Italian ryegrass also means we can take a grass silage cut before the maize is drilled.”

The Reads grow about 60ha of maize, all of it RGT Agiraxx. The variety delivers a highly digestible silage high in dry matter, starch content and metabolisable energy, ideal for balancing the grass silage and maximising livestock performance.

Maize is fed 50:50 on a dry matter basis with grass silage, along with bought-in bulk protein and energy ingredients and chopped straw tweaked according to need.

Robotic milking, introduced a decade ago, helps to fine-tune ration formulation. “If we have a correct balance between the concentrate fed in the parlour and what’s available from the feed face, the number of daily visits per cow stays constant,” says Harry. “If the visits drop off, it’s a sign that something is amiss and give us plenty of early warning to check what’s going on.”

The robotic parlour has also improved herd welfare, underpinning the sustainability of the system. “Cows can visit whenever they want, 24 hours a day. They have a more level production profile, and are healthier and less stressed,” says Harry.

“Robots also enable us to spend more time on cow management rather than simply milking them. Yields have improved as a result and the calving index has reduced to around 390 days – it’s just made the job easier all round.”

Maize management

Target drilling date for the maize is mid April, weather permitting. All fields are ploughed beforehand, then power harrowed. They are then contract-drilled when the farm’s sandy loam soils still contain sufficient moisture, encouraging even and rapid germination.

This, along with the variety’s good early vigour, helps ensure strong early growth. “It’s pretty quick off the mark, which really helps set the crop up and keeps everything on track right through to harvest,” says Harry.

At the other end of the season RGT Agiraxx exhibits early leaf dry-down with advanced grain maturity. This enables early harvesting, usually by the end of September at Pyrland Farm, enabling the crop to be gathered in optimum conditions and to allow plenty of time for grass reseeding.

Results speak for themselves, says Harry. “We’ve been growing the variety for about 10 years. Terry Bratcher of Willow Green Agriculture recommended it back then and has continued to do so.

“We see no reason to change – RGT Agiraxx has always been a very consistent performer, however the season turns out. "

“We’ve never had a problem with it – it gets away well early, is early to harvest, but produced very good yields and excellent quality, with nice big cobs, and it stands well. It always feeds well out of the clamp.”

Average yields are 42t/ha, and dry matter around 33%, of highly digestible high energy forage. “Last year our contractor cut the maize with a forager fitted with a yield map. According to that we got 43.3t/ha fresh weight and 34% dry matter,” says Harry.

“That’s pretty well up there – it was an exceptional year, but shows how the variety continues to perform.”

Consistent performer

It is the sheer consistency of RGT Agiraxx that has helped it become the UK’s most widely grown maize variety this century, says Terry Bratcher.

“I look at loads of varieties as I go round farms each season and nothing touches it for its overall performance – you can put it up against anything,” says Terry.

“You can count on RGT Agiraxx delivering high dry matter, high starch and good ME levels year in, year out, and not just in favourable areas.

“Its good early vigour and exceptional standing power make it very attractive in more marginal and exposed areas, such as the Blackdowns, where it will be slightly later to harvest but still delivering tremendous yields.

“RGT Agiraxx may have been around for several years, but many of my farmers aren’t interested in trying anything else. They know how to grow it and they know it will deliver."

“This year we’ve seen some tremendous crops, some of the biggest since we started selling it. It still has a bright future ahead of it.”

RGT Agiraxx

· UK market leading forage maize

· High dry matter yields

· Very good grain maturity

· Very high digestibility

· High dry matter, starch and ME Yield

· Large cobs

· Robust with good early vigour and rapid establishment

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