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I HAVE been writing this column for over five years now and if there is one crop that I have been consistently banging the drum about, so it should come as no surprise at all to anyone that it’s grass.

I have consistently referred to grass as a crop and indeed have written many articles which highlighted the importance of managing grass as a crop and I take great pleasure in introducing you to a hardworking husband and wife team who are doing just that. Not that I am in any way remotely taking any credit for their actions as they had indentified grass as the key component toward farming profitability some years ago and they were not influenced at all by my articles as they were not, at that stage, on South West Farmer’s mailing list – although they are now.

Neville and Suzanne Loder (NG & S Loder) started their agricultural career when they moved into The Dairy Farm, Oborne, Sherborne in Dorset and first came to my attention when I spoke to them about their recent award of South West Dairy Farmer of the Year for 2008.

Successful business
The farm itself is a 95 acre Dorset County Council Farm, with the Loders renting a further 85 acres of adjoining land (60 of which have only been recently aquired on a six month grass keep basis) and far from being totally disillusioned with the agricultural industry – as some people are these days – they feel privileged at being given the opportunity to ‘’have a go’’. They started from bare boards, moved onto the farm with just thirty heifers and together with a steely determination and a will to succeed, they have built up an extremely successful business where they currently carry a herd of 85 Holstein Friesians, with the intention of gradually increasing to a maximum of 100, plus up to 30 followers.

The herd is split into two groups for calving, with the first block calving between February and April, with the second block during September and October. All the heifer calves are kept on as future herd replacements with all the bull calves being sold at local markets between two and four weeks of age.

They moved onto the farm in November 1999 and started milking the following April, but soon realised that virtually all the grassland that they had inherited was extremely old and very unproductive – the composition largely being made up from meadow grass and a very high weed content. Milk production was very unpredictable as yields varied wildly from field to field. Once having accepted that they had to do ‘something’ with their grass, they sought help and advice from Trevor Birchall Agriculture (TBA) who suggested that over as short a period as possible, they should re-seed the whole farm, and their initial low stocking rate enabled them to embark on a comprehensive re-seeding programme, since which, their grassland strategy is now largely built around long term leys using just two proven mixtures, both of which are from Sinclair McGill. Prosper – a mixture with a high percentage of tetraploids which is used for both cutting and grazing and Castle Hill – another long term mixture which is used predominantly for grazing - a strategy which has subsequently allowed them to get to today’s rates of nearly 1 LSU per acre.

Grassland advice
When asked to comment on his general grassland advice, Trevor Birchall explained that he has had trial plots of all the main Sinclair McGill mixtures for some time now on land adjoining their offices at Suddon Grange Farm at Wincanton in Somerset (courtesy of Steve and Tanya Miller) and everyone who came to see them were always impressed with the way the cows preferentially grazed the mixtures with a high tetraploid content as opposed to those mixtures with a high diploid content – therefore any mixtures that were intended as being dual purpose or just grazing had to have a high percentage of tetraploids. Secondly, because the west country is so prevalent to grassland diseases – especially crown rust, all mixtures had to have a high resistancy rating. Dry matter yields, persistency and winter hardiness also featured quite prominently and after having been on the farm for ten years now, these two mixtures have given the Loder’s both the consistency and reliability that they now take for granted.

Great thought has to be given to their fertilizer policy as the whole farm is within an NVZ area and the huge increase in price has virtually ‘forced’ the Loder’s into maximizing the potential from slurry – the bulk of which goes onto cutting ground between cuts. Nitrogen is applied every 3 – 4 weeks at 1 bag per acre on all the grazing land from February to late September with 2 bags per acre of 27.5.5 applied as a top up for the first cut as soon as the fields have been unstocked.

Maximising milk
The Loder’s philosophy is to maximize milk from grazed grass as they believe that this is the key to profitability – the cost of megajoule production being the lowest possible. The farm lies on stone brash with about two inches of soil and although prone to summer droughts, the real advantage is that they can turn the cows out by day as early as mid-February, not having to come in by night until the end of October.

Whilst the very thought of summer droughts has now become a distant memory, the Loder’s, like others in the area, experienced three successive dry years in 2004, 2005 and 2006 and although renting further adjacent land proved virtually impossible, they were able to purchase forage from neighbouring farms which enabled them to supplement summer grazing – an exercise which proved extremely cost effective.

All the farm is opened up to grazing in the spring, with the first cut of silage not being taken until late May and although the calendar would suggest that this could be too late, quality is still excellent with this years first cut analysing out at over 25 per cent dry matter and 11.1 ME. A normal season would permit two cuts, with yields at about eight tonnes per acre and six tonnes respectively, but wet years such as 2007 and 2008 allowed a further cut to be taken. Once the cows have been brought in for the winter, silage is fed ad lib with easy access to ring feeders allowing them to eat as much as they want.

‘’This is an all grassland farm’’ said Neville Loder. ‘’We believe that good grassland management is the real key to success and we therefore treat grass accordingly – we manage it as a crop. Quality grass equals quality milk equals more profitability’’ he said.

The Loder’s are concentrating on what we all believe they are extremely good at – namely making very good quality grass, managing and maintaining the health and yield of the cows, producing quality milk and achieving a healthy profit at the end of the year. The herd is currently averaging 7,700 litres of which 4,500 litres (59%) is from forage with butterfats at 4.08 per cent and 3.25 per cent milk protein with the Loder’s main objectives for the next three years being to maintain yields, maintain cow condition and a continued fulfilment of family life.