Shane’s Castle Estate, which is set just outside Randalstown in County Antrim, is home to a herd of 200 autumn-calving Holstein cows managed by a two-operator team, Andrew Hamill and Chris Gamble.
They have implemented various practices in recent years to not only make better use of grazed grass on the farm but also increase the production of grass with a ‘ground up’ approach starting with soil fertility.
Grass is king for the herd at Shane’s Castle estate, and its value, in terms of being extremely digestible and high in crude protein, is why it is regarded as the highest quality feed on the farm.
The team at Shane’s Castle recognise this and have been making headway in the past few years by improving growth and use of grass on the enterprise.
They have set clear objectives to improve grazing management and soil fertility.
Measurement is central on the farm, with grass measured weekly and soils sampled every year to build “an accurate picture of the farm”.
At a recent CAFRE business development group meeting held on the farm, CAFRE dairying adviser,
Richard Gibson, highlighted the practices implemented on the farm, along with the progress Andrew and Chris have made.
The importance of sampling the whole farm regularly rather than a few paddocks was one of the starting points at the meeting.
Gradually, over the past two years, information from soil fertility testing has been utilised to improve soil fertility, with 55% of the farm now optimal for growing grass.
This is a significant improvement with “still more room for improvement”.
Early grazing and the basic management of grazing techniques were also mentioned as relevant, with on/off grazing and good farm laneways used to get cows out early to grass, another key part of the plan on the farm.
Shane’s Castle improvement plan is based on the following points:
Use the soil analysis
Soil sample reports with phosphorous (P), potassium (K), and pH will provide sufficient information to calculate what nutrients need to be added to gain sufficient grass growth.
The target for soil P and K is index 2+. Replacing nutrients removed by grazing or harvesting grass to maintain an index of 2+ will ensure optimum growing conditions for the grass plant.
Soils at index 1 and 2 for P and K have a lower nutrient supply and therefore require additional nutrients every year to reach soil index 2+.
Research conducted by AFBI and other research centres has shown that soils at index 2+ for P and K can produce an extra 1.5t /ha of grass dry matter over soils with index 1 for these nutrients.
This is equivalent to 15% more grass production on many farms across the country, which can represent a significant saving in concentrate costs on farms if this grass is utilised correctly.
The staff on the farm emphasised the importance of regular reseeding for increasing grass yields on the farm.
When questioned on the seed variety, they had a clear picture of the grazing variety and silage choice. Both seed mixtures had only four seed varieties which have been tried and tested to work well on the farm soil type.
Much of the additional yield and quality from a reseed is driven by an improved response to applied nutrients. The varieties used all had a similar mid-late heading date.
- Limiting chemical nitrogen purchases
Clover was mentioned as an option, but the team would like to improve soil fertility before introducing any clover on the farm, especially soil pH.
Tackling the weed burden across the farm in both silage and grazing swards is also a priority.
While clover is not in the sward currently, both Andrew and Chris would like to introduce clover to reduce purchased chemical nitrogen.
The team have just introduced a break crop of wheat this year for whole-crop forage; the intention is to implement this rotation to control weeds and establish clover in the subsequent reseed.
- Manage calving profile to hit grass early
Herd fertility has always been a challenge on this farm, and calving was spread over most of the year.
However, the team have compacted the calving into 16 weeks, ending in early January. Cows must be back in calve before turnout in early March.
It is a heavy farm with a high rainfall in this area, and while additional laneways have been introduced, more could be done to help improve the grazing, especially in early season.
Being an autumn-calving herd, there is a high grass demand when conditions allow cows out, and the herd milk well on the early grass.
The team have culled hard over the past three years to help achieve the more compact profile; however, the benefits well outweigh the cost of this approach.
Going for forage quality at Shane’s Castle
With a herd average of around 9300l/cow, forage quality is also a “vital” aspect for the system at Shane’s Castle.
Nutritional quality is principally governed by grass digestibility (D-value), which starts to fall with the onset of stem formation and heading.
Do not be tempted to sacrifice quality for quantity by delaying harvest, the meeting heard, as cutting date is critical to the quality of second and subsequent cuts.
At the Castle, Andrew and Chris are moving towards a multi-cut system with 3 to 4 cuts taken each year with the potential of also getting a grazing of this area.
Grass silage can only be as good as the sward from which it is made.
In a similar way, grazing management at Shane’s Castle is focused on grass quality, the silage-making process is centred on producing and utilising sufficient, high-quality forage.
|Shane’s Castle Dairy Herd 2023
|Cow in herd
|Annual Milk yield (l/cow)
|Young stock replacements
|0-1 yrs – 85 head & 1-2 yrs – 90 head
|Calving start date
|Calving end date
|Turn out date
|Mid-March – (on/off grazing)
|Breeding start date
|Number weeks breeding
|% farm optimal for grass growth (pH 6.2, P 2+, & K 2+)
Challenging start to grazing 2023 for the team at Shane’s Castle
Challenging conditions during March prevented cows going out to grass as normal, with any limited grazing resulting in paddock damage.
April and the start of May have been more of the same. Nitrogen was sown early on, and so grass growth has been good. With better weather this week, grass is being utilised well.
Measuring tools like Agrinet, used by the Shane’s Castle staff for the weekly grass walk allows for a grazing plan for the farm.
This, coupled with the improvements in soil fertility, grass growth and basic infrastructure, have improved production on the farm and built resilience for the business.
Andrew and Chris have been able to improve farm output through better herd fertility while at the same time reducing concentrate feed purchased and replacing this with grass.
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