April Gold Cup comment: Soil management key to business

In their first article 2017 NMR/RABDF Gold Cup winner Rich Norman from Herefordshire reports on the latest news from The Leen and outlines their environmental policy.

Having walked into the Gold Cup competition blind, encouraged by Moana Puha (LIC grazing group facilitator) and our parents (Tony and Barbara), Chris and I knew very little of what it meant and the history and prestige that goes with it.  When the judges had grilled us, we thought that would be the last we would hear!  Never did we think that we would have articles written about us and be writing articles like this—so here we go.

Chris and I were really surprised and proud to have won the Gold Cup.  We first and very foremost would like to thank our staff, without their hard work and extremely high standards we would not have this level of recognition bestowed upon us and our business.

It turns out we were not the only crossbred herd to have won the Gold Cup.  In 1926 and 1927 a herd of Blue Albions and Shorthorns belonging to RD Seals from Ashbourne in Kent won the cup.  A Blue Albion, apparently is a cross between a Shorthorn, Welsh and Friesian.  They do say these things happen in cycles, let’s hope that it doesn’t take another 91 years for the next crossbred herd to win!

The Leen farm update
As a block autumn calver the spring is a relatively easy time of year (compared to our spring counterparts).  We aim to get our cows out grazing by day at the start of February (Feb 12th this year).  We closed the farm and stopped grazing in mid-October with an average grass cover of 2,550kg DM/ha.  This basically means that we carry the grass over the winter to give the cows something to graze in this early turn out period before the grass growth exceeds the cows demand.  Magic day is usually the first week in April.  We believe this early grazing stimulates the grass to grow because grazed grass grows.

Cows grazed until mid-October and were turned out again on Feb 12th.png

Cows grazed until mid-October and were turned out again on Feb 12th

This early turn out allows the winter routine to be broken, the cows and staff love it and it lowers our costs of production.  Less straw, less slurry, less labour, less concentrates fed, and so on.  We reckon on saving £1/head/day when they are out and the milk volume goes up.  We have done this for over 10 years.  However, snow from the “beast from the east” put a stop to our wonderful plan this year.  Luckily we have resilient staff, a stock of silage and a sympathetic straw supplier (my brother-in-law).  We came out of it relatively unscathed, however, we do have a list of jobs to make our lives easier for the next time it happens.

We are in our seventh month of lactation and currently producing 1.8kg MS/cow/day (5.08% fat and 3.89% protein), 100 SCC with the Bactoscan running higher than we would like at 45.  The cows are getting 4.0kg concentrate, 4.0kg DM grass silage and 9.0 to 10kg DM of grass.  They are out night and day weather permitting.

We have had a first this year—we weighed every cow in the herd. Krisztian, our dairy manager, has pushed us to do this—he is an absolute stickler for detail.  In the past we have used an assumed mature body weight as the basis for a lot of the on farm targets like, daily feed intakes and youngstock growth to name a few—both are critically important for maximising production potential from our herd.  We had assumed 475kg in the past.  Once weighed our actual average mature weight (taking out 1st lactation animals) was 10% more which means our targets have been out and we have effectively been under feeding cows and failing to maximise our growth rates in youngstock.  We will now change our targets and rations to account for this.  We have decided to do this annually—measure and you will learn.

Environment & soils issues
We greatly care about the environment we live and work in and the impact we have on it.  We thought we would include a section each month on wildlife and the environment and here is a brief outline of what we do.

We run—as some would think, a very intensive farm—around 1,000 cattle, a broiler unit and an anaerobic digester.  We have the River Arrow running through the farm, wild flower meadows, an SSSI, many miles of hedgerows and hundreds of trees to manage and maintain.  Over the years we have been involved in various Stewardship schemes, tree planting, fencing off watercourses, managing meadows, margins and hedges for wildlife.

We ran the farm organically for many years and learned to farm without artificial fertiliser, pesticides, wormers etc—many of the lessons from those days we still apply today.  We have learned to use the cycles within the system to reduce costs by utilising our own fertiliser, electricity, heat, water and wood from the farm to insulate us from external input price fluctuations which makes our business more robust for the future.

Soils are possibly the greatest asset we have.  Financially we rely on soils to leverage our business, they are absolutely critical to crop production, cow health and production and it is the largest store (given the chance) of carbon.  We feel it would be irresponsible not to understand, to care and nurture our soils.

 At this point I will say that we are not perfect and there has been an element of learning from our mistakes but we are trying to improve and lower our impact on soils and nature.  We are part of a ‘soils’ discussion group and go to great efforts to prevent run off, preventing loss of this valuable asset and stop it entering our streams and rivers.  We have entered a worm count research project to assess the health of our soils, watch this space for our findings and facts that come from digging 10 pits per field (we are not doing every field) and counting the worms.

Gold Cup Open Day
We are looking forward to hosting the Gold Cup Open Day at the farm on Thursday 14 June, 2018.  Speakers confirmed and along with more information, can be found here

Reprinted from the April 2018 edition of British Dairying. To see the original article please visit the British Dairying website.