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I know that I am always bleating away about the need to improve your home grown forage – not just in quantity, but also in quality.

I have also tried to express my concerns about the need to improve upon the quality of summer grazing – believing that there are a significant number of farmers out there who are of the opinion that the quality of their summer grass is far better than it actually is, with the nett result being that, in a number of cases, cows will milk off their backs, eventually lose weight and condition and milk yields will inevitably suffer – and by the time you start to see the problems, you’ve got a mountain to climb in order to get the cows back to where they were before. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could avoid that potential scenario, save money and have a much less stressful summer? With a bit more planning, crop management and real hands on from your feed compounder, there is no reason at all why you cannot enjoy the resultant benefits.

M.S Ashton & Sons have been farming Awsland Farm, Peters Marland, near Torrington, W Devon since 1994 and during that time, have built up their Jersey herd to 180 cows plus 160 followers. The farm is all grass and totals 290 acres. Philip, with his wife Jane, joined his brother Peter in late 2007, after their other brother left the farm to pursue other interests.

I think that it would be fair to describe the herd’s performance as just “ticking over’’ for a number of years with the figures from March, 2009 being 4,442 litres per cow, with just 1,700 litres (38 per cent) coming from forage – it being around this time that the family decided that they really ought to be seeking some professional advice in order to try and get the cows up to a much more acceptable level.

Pete Davis – Ruminant Nutritionist from Harpers Home Mix made his first call to Awsland Farm during late March of 2009 and soon identified areas in which he believed improvements could be made and now, some two years and three months and lots of hard work later, the herd average has been increased to 6,000 litres per cow with 2,700 litres (45 per cent) coming from forage with margins per cow increasing by £500. The herd actually hit their yield target of 6,000 litres but just fell short of their milk from forage target of 3,000 litres.

The family are just about to embark upon a completely new re-seeding strategy and with the introduction of bought in forage maize into the diet plus the possibility of a significant acreage of an Italian Ryegrass/Red Clover mixture, the family’s long term aim cum target is 6,500 litres per cow with 3,500 litres (54 per cent) from forage – a target that both the family and Pete Davis believe is more than realistic.

There are 120 acres of grassland which is adjacent to the parlour and is used exclusively for grazing – the only experience of cutting being when it gets ahead of the cows and is occasionally topped. Cows can be turned out as early as mid February with the young stock and followers pre-grazing all the scheduled cutting ground until the end of March when the gates are shut, fertilizer applied in readiness for the first cut in mid May with subsequent cuts being taken every six/seven weeks.

The overall quality of the grass on the farm is average and there is only so much that it can offer toward milk from forage and the decision was taken that the farm would have to be completely re-seeded – over a period of time – eventually working with leys of no more than 5 years old, with their choice of new mixtures being confined to just two – one that is predominantly for grazing but can be topped with the other being a graze and cut mix – both of which containing up to 1.5 kgs per acre of white clover. Further considerations are being given to mixtures with a higher proportion of tetraploids as these grasses can offer higher sugar levels and as such, are preferentially grazed. Furthermore, tetraploids offer better drought tolerance and disease resistance.

It had long been felt that forage maize could play an extremely important role toward the extra yields that the family were working hard toward but, unfortunately, the farm was so heavily stocked that they just did not have enough acreage to grow their own so, not to be outdone, they purchased 400 tonnes – off field from a neighbouring farm last year – this exercise proving so successful that this year, they have purchased sufficient acreage for a further 100 tonnes from the same farm.

The phosphate and potash indices had been quite low back in 2007 but since then, has been built up bit by bit and now stands at a healthy 2/3 for both.

One particular area of concern for the family and a serious contributor to the rather poor overall yields was the performance of newly calved heifers – a problem that was traced back to the early health of the calves with Philip’s wife Jane taking on a huge and potentially onerous task of “sorting it out’’. But “sort it out’’ she did with the heifers now yielding nearly as much as the cows.

Another key role that Jane has taken on is a weekly check on all the grassland using a grass plate meter and, in so doing, she can quickly establish whether or not the cows will be having access to sufficient grazing during the following few days and it was during one of her more recent inspections that the plate meter confirmed her worst suspicions and that grass growth had been severely curtailed by the recent spell of dry – and in some cases - cold weather.

100 tonnes of grass silage were immediately purchased from a neighbouring farm and offered as a supplement to a reduced grazed grass intake with Harpers Home Mix introducing an 18 per cent Protein Summer Buffer Mix which is high in sugar beet and hipro soya. These changes were made immediately after the family became aware that potential problems were just around the corner, but because of their swift action and attention to detail, dietary changes were implemented and thus prevented any reduction in yield.

All milk is sold to Stapleton’s – a nearby yoghurt producer at Torrington – with the price that they are currently being paid being 33ppl – this being an average price for the rest of the year.

The Ashton Family is not unique in any way at all. They work hard – you all work hard. They experience problems from time to time – as do you all. They want to improve overall profitability by improving their forage – so do you. So do I....!

The key behind their increased profitability is directly linked to forage and attention to detail. To grow the crop, to manage it and then to feed it – correctly. Harpers Home Mix were there not just to provide them with a winter feed, but also with a supplementary feed and real professional advice for the all important summer as well.

Harper’s provided the farm with a product that fully complemented what was already in the clamp or in the field and, like all feed compounders, they want their customers to be profitable. They need their customers to be profitable. Use them. Please.