Harvesting grass more frequently and targeting an earlier first cut is allowing a Pembrokeshire dairy farm to make better-quality forage to offset purchased feed costs.

Good quality silage is a key component in the diet of the herd at Fagwrfran East, Puncheston.

“It forms the base upon which we build a highly palatable, nutritious and inviting ration for our cows,’’ says Michael, who farms with his parents, Gareth and Annette.

By taking first cut earlier and making more cuts of silage the business is achieving better silage quality throughout the year, important as grass silage makes up the majority of the diet throughout the year, even when the milking cows are out at pasture in the summer.

The dairy enterprise revolves around an all-year-round calving herd of 145 mainly Holstein cows with some Jersey and Norwegian Red crossbreds.

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Emphasis is on producing consistent yields with good constituents to suit the farm’s supply contract with First Milk.

The system had been based around twice a day milking in a 10-20 swingover parlour but when that needed upgrading, different options were explored. “I wanted to ease the workload on my parents but we didn’t have sufficient cow numbers to justify the salary of a full-time worker,’’ Michael recalls.

And, with a young family of his own, milking twice a day, every day, wasn’t an appealing prospect.

“We started looking into robotics and figured that the best route was automated milking,’’ says Michael.

Although the herd has access to pasture during the grazing season, the principal diet revolves around a good quality total mixed ration (TMR) of grass silage and maize.

Grass quality is a key driver for making good silage, with the true benefits of the multi-cut system in ensuring leys are in good order.

Young, fresh grasses perform much better and respond well to any inputs than older leys so the target is to reseed 15-20 acres annually, depending on weather and stocking rates.

The preference is to reseed with perennial or hybrid ryegrass in late August or early September, to give the fresh grass a chance to establish before winter.

A zero-tillage single pass machine is used. “This is great for our hilly farm, especially fields that we know are stony,’’ says Michael.

“It also makes reseeding much more economical and less vulnerable to weather.’’

First applications of fertiliser are made as soon as the fields can be travelled without marking, usually in late March but in early April for some areas of the farm.

The first application in preparation for first cut is 75kg nitrogen(N)/Ha followed by 50-55kgN/Ha immediately after each subsequent cut.

“We try to use a fertiliser that includes sulphur, this is essential for healthy plant growth,’’ says Michael.

Soils are sampled every three or four years. P and K indices are mostly 3 but some are at 4.

The majority of fields only receive N fertilisers with most of the P and K coming from manure produced on farm but some fields receive targeted P and K applications depending on soil sample results.

Great emphasis is placed on utilising stored manure.

“We try to treat slurry as a nutrient source rather than a waste product, applying early in the spring and after each cut of silage,’’ says Michael.

“We handle slurry ourselves using an umbilical system and tanker to further outlying fields.

“One of the many benefits of the multi cut system is the ability to apply slurry little and often to growing crops.’’

The first cut is taken around May 12th with subsequent harvesting carried out at intervals of 33-35 days. A silage additive is used.

All the mowing and tedding is done in-house and a contractor chops and ensiles it.

“We aim to mow as much as possible in the afternoon and will ted immediately, aiming to allow grass to wilt for 24 hours before the forager arrives,’’ says Michael.

Some second and third cuts are left to mature a little longer to make bale silage to feed to youngstock, dry cows, and to beef cattle – all beef calves are retained and reared on a simple grass-based mob grazing system with baled silage fed during winter.

Good clamp management pays dividends in preventing silage spoilage at ensiling and feeding out.

The clamp must be clean and side sheets are used, with enough spare to fold over to overlap the opposite side.

A single top sheet is used between cuts and once the clamp is filled and sealed for the final time, it is covered with an oxygen barrier and top sheet.

These are covered with a combination of secure covers and silage mats.

“We like to layer the crop as it’s coming in so that during feeding out field variations are evenly distributed through the clamp,’’ says Michael.

“We always try to have two machines on the clamp during filling, one pushing in and the other constantly compacting.’’

Attention to detail at mowing and tedding and preventing contamination combined with excellent pit management, plenty of compaction and ensuring the pit is covered adequately are all important, he adds.

“Attention to detail at every stage makes for the best outcome,’’ says Michael.