By Debbie James

Sowing a forage rape cover crop with a permanent pasture mix is providing a natural weed suppressant on a Pembrokeshire dairy farm.

The Jenkins family reseed a seventh of their 880-acre holding every year, growing 80 acres of forage rape as a catch crop for fattening lambs and beef cattle, followed by wheat and barley to provide wholecrop for the dairy herd and then a seven-year permanent grass ley.

John Jenkins, who milks a herd of 330 Holstein Friesians at Lower House Farm, Spittal,

said forage rape is not only a good crop for growing livestock but adding 0.5kg/acre of seed to grass mixes has numerous benefits.

“It keeps the weeds down and we can also fatten seven lambs an acre on it from October 1. It’s good for the seed bed to have those lambs there and the income from the lambs covers all reseeding costs,’’ explains Mr Jenkins, who farms with his children, Carwyn and Ceri, since the sudden death of his wife, Undeg, last year.

The first of the wheat and barley is harvested on August 10th and the field ploughed the day after cutting. The seven-year grass mix is sown at 14kg/acre with 0.5kg of forage rape.

Forage rape in the system at Lower House Farm 30 years ago and it continues to form an important part of the reseeding programme, with the rotation consisting of 80 acres of forage rape and 120 acres of wheat, barley and rye.

“Forage rape is a very big part of our business, the main reason we grow it is that it is a good fit for the reseeding cycle,’’ Mr Jenkins explains.

He says the high percentage of young leys is a reason why his cows produce 4,400 litres of milk from forage – more than half their average annual milk yield of 8,000 litres. All the silage is produced from leys no older than four years.

“The silage quality has improved so much since we have been reseeding, we aim for an ME of 12.2 per cent,’’ says Mr Jenkins.

In addition to the 880 acres he owns, he rents land but never uses that for producing silage. “We don’t put that grass in the pit, we want all our silage to come from fresh leys.’’

As well as producing milk, the family fattens and finishes 800 Belgian Blue-cross beef calves from the dairy herd and 75 suckler cows; they also lamb 1400 ewes and buy up to 3,000 store lambs a year for fattening.

Forage rape provides winter fodder for the cattle and sheep. “There is tremendous goodness in forage rape, in the winter when there is no grass to graze it is a good growing food for livestock. If the land was drier we would use it for grazing dairy stock too,’’ says Mr Jenkins.

The seed, which is supplied by PRAg, is drilled on July 20, immediately after the second cut of silage has been harvested. The stubble is sprayed off immediately after the grass has been collected and the rape is direct drilled, at a rate of 3kg seed/acre with 2kg/acre of slug pellets. A 15-15-15 fertiliser is applied at drilling at a rate of 102kg/acre and the crop is top dressed three weeks later with 51kg/acre of nitrogen.

“We prefer to direct drill because it means the livestock don’t tread the fields badly in the winter as the ground is more solid,’’ says Mr Jenkins.

Twenty acres are strip grazed by beef cattle and the remaining 60 by fattening lambs.

“If it wasn’t for poaching we would grow a bigger acreage, it is such a cheap and healthy feed,’’ says Mr Jenkins.

“It goes back to what our grandfathers were doing, they didn’t have sprays and fertilisers. Where we graze sheep, we get a tremendous crop of wheat in the following rotation.’’