Grass quality top priority for 2021 Farmers Weekly Grassland Manager of the Year

Friday 22.10.2021 , news

It is only three years since the 2021 Farmers Weekly Grassland Manager of the Year winner, Mark Housby, completed the conversion of a farm from arable to dairy production. But in this short time, the innovation he’s shown with managing grass in the system, and the role he believes it will play in the unit’s future, helped him secure this year’s title.

In 2018 Mark became manager of the 494-acre Peepy Farm, near Stocksfield, Northumberland, with tenants Robert and Jackie Craig. The team recently added a further 124 acres of ground for grazing youngstock, and now milks 480 Irish and New Zealand Friesian, Jersey crossbred cows, equally split between a spring and autumn block. Average yields per cow are 6,780 litres (4.65% fat and 3.8% protein), with 3,800 litres from forage.

“The spring and autumn block split gives us flexibility to make the most of the grass, while managing the dry conditions we often have in the summer,” explains Mark. “As we dry off the autumn calvers, demand falls just as grass starts drying up. If grass supply becomes tight later in the summer we feed our spring calvers silage in the paddock as necessary.  

That’s not to say protecting spring grass and building the grazing block for turnout isn’t Mark’s priority coming into the autumn. “We can’t afford to be short of grass in the spring. Being caught out then and your whole season can be a nightmare. Our spring block spends the winter on straw yards and we won’t milk off these.

Mark continues: “We need grass to be available for cows straight after calving, which begins in February as silage stocks can be tight at that time of year. This means leaving the right grass residuals at the back end of the autumn. With this in mind, we are flexible with when we bring the autumn calving herd inside, but it usually starts at the beginning of October.”

The farm was reseeded using Aber HSG 4 with white clover in 2018 when Mark and Robert took on the farm, as they knew high quality grass would drive business efficiency and performance. “We like the combination of tetraploid and diploids in the mix, and the cows find the sugars hugely palatable, driving performance and milk solids,” says Mark. “We have great grazing cows that can take advantage of the quality grass.”

Recently Mark has overseeded 50 acres of the existing ley with a mix of chicory, plantain, red and white clover to address the farm’s issue with dry conditions and add diversity to the sward. “We’ve been talking to our milk buyer, First Milk, about sustainability in the dairy industry and know we need to reduce inputs,” he says.  

Targeting fields that tend to burn off first, Mark used plantain for its longer tap root which he feels benefit the soil structure and help boost sward performance when grass suffers in the dry conditions. He also used white clover in the overseeding mix for its nitrogen-fixing properties.  

“We measure grass weekly during the growing season to make sure we have a very clear picture of availability, and soil sample regularly,” concludes Mark. “Going forward we will aim to grow the same tonnage of grass from less inputs. It’s something we’ve trialled this year with our nitrogen and the results are very encouraging. It’s the way to build sustainability into the farm, both environmentally and financially.”

Farm Facts

  • 494 acres plus 124 acres grazing for youngstock
  • 480 Irish and NZ Friesians x Jerseys cows
  • 50:50 spring/autumn block
  • Average yield 6,780 litres with 3,800 from forage
  • First Milk supplier
  • Grass measured weekly: best paddocks approximately 16.5tDM/ha
  • Soil sampled regularly

Spring block

  • Cows dried off at the end of November/early December and moved onto straw yards
  • Calving starts in early February for nine weeks
  • Cows go straight out to grass if conditions right, even if that means three hours a day grazing

Autumn block

  • Cows dried off at the end of June
  • Cows go on to standing hay from drying off
  • Cows calve outside at the end of August
  • They are housed from the beginning of October, depending on conditions
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