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UK Grassland Farmer of the Year announced

Cheshire dairy farmer Mathew Venables has won the UK Grassland Farmer of the Year Award, run annually by the British Grassland Society (BGS).

Mathew and Nikki Venables

Mathew and Nikki Venables (centre) receive their winner’s certificate from head judge Richard Ratcliffe (left), BGS president Helen Mathieu (far right) and Elaine Jewkes of competition sponsor GrowHow

The organisation’s president Helen Mathieu, along with representatives of competition sponsors GrowHow and DLF-Trifolium, announced the winner at a dedicated awards ceremony, in Fishguard, West Wales last week (23 October).

The event was hosted by North Pembrokeshire Grassland Society, the local society of last year’s winner, sheep farmer Neil Perkins. The runners-up were dairy farmers Andrew Owen from Ceredigion and Mark Cash from Yorkshire.

Head judge Richard Ratcliffe, a dairy farmer and former BGS President, commended all three finalists for the excellence of their grassland management, and for running productive and profitable businesses. This was echoed by fellow judges Elaine Jewkes of GrowHow and Tim Kerridge of DLF-Trifolium.

The competition, which draws entrants from local grassland societies from across the UK, critically examines the farmers’ approach to areas such as grazing, soil nutrient management, reseeding, silage-making and environmental considerations, as well as their overall business strategy and philosophy.

Attention to detail

Mr Venables impressed the judges with his attention to detail in managing both his grassland and his dairy herd, along with recording production data and costs to make evidence-based decisions.

Mathew and his wife Nikki have contract-farmed Pigeon House Farm with the landlord since June 2008. The 132ha (326 acre) grassland farm carries 480 spring-calving New Zealand crossbred cows.

The farm is run as a separate closed unit solely for grazing the milking dairy herd. Support land, in blocks some distance away from the farm, is used for youngstock grazing, silage production and growing fodder beet for outwintering in-calf heifers. All forage from this block, plus the near-calving heifers, are ‘bought’ by the Pigeon House Farm business.

Visits to New Zealand have helped Matt formulate his grassland policy. Knowing how much grass can be grown on the whole farm means he can stock it with enough cows to graze it efficiently. Central to this is measuring grass each week. In addition to showing which fields to graze and whether there is a surplus or shortage looming, it also records production across the year to judge which paddocks need reseeding.

The policy with the cows is to provide them with 18kg of dry matter(DM) a day, of which 2kg/DM/cow is fed as a blend in the parlour at a flat rate through the grazing season. If the remaining 16kg of DM cannot come from grazed grass, due to drought or wet conditions, extra feed is provided to maintain the paddock rotation, and the cows dry matter intake (DMI).

“Grazing a herd of 480 spring calving cows as one group is not easy, especially when you are trying to graze a paddock efficiently to leave a residual of 1500kg/DM/ha,” said Mr Venables.

“If a paddock has not been grazed off cleanly, we turn the herd back into it after milking, and leave the cows there for a couple of hours before moving them onto a fresh block of grass.”

Currently the herd averages a yield of 5,079 litres, with 3,412 litres coming from forage. The cold spring and dry July have reduced margins this year. However the stocking rate of 3.69 cows per hectare and target milk yields have been maintained by buying in extra feed.

Mark takes a considered approach to grassland nutrition, with annual soil testing and using slurries and manures as well as fertilisers.

“Mathew’s willingness to change and look at things from different angles, is what really made him stand out as a worthy winner,” said head judge Richard Ratcliffe.

“Flexibility has given him the experience to manage the herd when things are going against him, resulting in a very robust system,” said Mr Ratcliffe.

Runners up

The two competition runners-up were also dairy farmers; Andrew Owen of Mid-Cardiganshire Grassland Society and Mark Cash, a member of Ripon Grassland Society.

Andrew Owen, Lampeter

Relying on top quality grass to drive milk production has been fine-tuned over the years to make Pantygwiail Farm financially successful. The family farm is now run by Andrew Owen, with active help from his wife Anne and his parents.

The 93ha (230 acre) self-contained farm carries 127 Holstein Friesian cows, calving all year round. With all youngstock and dry cows kept on farm, the aim is to be totally self-sufficient for grazing and silage.

Grass measuring is done by eye, with paddocks of 0.8ha to 1.6ha in size, divided with electric fences to give a fresh bite after each milking. From the end of May, a pre-mow policy is used. Grass is cut ahead of cows twice a day before grazing, which avoids selective grazing to maintain quality swards throughout the grazing season.

“The grazing grass quality was very high when we visited, and gave the impression of always being that way” noted Mr Ratcliffe.

The family use their own machinery to cut grass for silage at just the right time to get a 30% DM, 11.5 ME silage. Up to 200 round bales are also made from any fields where there is a surplus of grass between the three main cuts. These are used for buffer feeding in the summer if grazing is in short supply.

Average milk yield is 6,151 litres, 78% of which comes from forage. Andrew has bred a cow suited to the system, and used to eating large volumes of quality forage with minimal supplementation.

“For an all-year-round calving herd, the performance figures at Pantygwiail are remarkable, and show what can be achieved with high quality forage every month of the year,” said Mr Ratcliffe.

Andrew’s father won the BGS Grass Silage Competition in 1999, proving these high standards have been in place for many years.

Mark Cash, York

Mark Cash, with his wife Gemma, has only been farming at Fourth Milestone Farm since 2012, but have transformed the unit.

Mark is the farm manager for Evolution Farming, which has a joint venture agreement with Mr Jim Waterhouse, who owns the 100ha (250 acre) farm near York.

Since the agreement began last year, the farm has undergone considerable changes. Noticeably, the move from 90 pedigree Ayrshire cows which calved all-the-year round, to 290 mainly spring calving cross-bred cows.

Infrastructure has changed to meet increasing cow numbers. A move from set stocking to paddock grazing has required the siting of cow tracks and water troughs in all paddocks.

There has been extensive reseeding to establish new grass-clover leys on 65ha (160 acres). The grazing platform has been divided into twenty-six 3ha (7.5 acre) or 4ha (10 acre) fields, with electric fencing used to further divide these fields when needed.

Head judge Richard Ratcliffe remarked that the new farm layout, with the paddocks and tracks, plus weekly grass plate metering are helping Mark get the best out of the grass.

“This is a farm still very much in transition, and the concentration on establishing good leys and maximising utilisation has to be applauded,” said Mr Ratcliffe.


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