Flexibility is the key to success in pasture-based system

Flexibility is the key to success in pasture-based system

People management is a fundamental part of Robert’s daily role. Robert runs three pasture-based dairy units in Cumbria and Northumbria. All three units are situated in areas highly suitable for producing grazed grass as the main feed source for the majority of the year. One of these units, Dolphenby, is a 270ha EuroDairy pilot farm.

Robert’s ensures that his strategic goals allow him to oversee the three units and manage 20 employees successfully, as well as allowing him to have time to focus on industry work. Away from the farm, Robert is also the non-executive director of dairy co-op First Milk and trustee of Royal Association of British’s Dairy Farmers.

Everyday farm goals at Dolphenby include:

  • Grow a minimum of 14 t DM/ha of grass/year
  • Produce 500 kg of milk solids/cow
  • Calve 80% of the herd in the first 6 weeks of the spring calving block
  • Achieve less than 10% empty cows in 12 weeks mating period
  • Achieve a replacement rate of less than 20%

Robert says: “The plate meter the most important piece of kit on the farm, we use it at least once a week. The data collected from the plate meter on weekly walks of the perennial ryegrass and white clover mix leys on the grazing platform are the core to day-to-day decisions on the farm”.

These decisions include which paddocks should be grazed first or closed-up for silage, which paddocks require fertiliser, and which are not performing at their optimum and may need re-seeding.

Robert and his team also use GPS technology on their phones to decide where electric fences need to be placed or moved within paddocks, to help improve grass utilisation on the farm.

Like many others, this year has been challenging, with the farm only seeing 6 weeks of optimum grass growing conditions, following the bad spring and summer drought. Total grass growth was still down on what would be expected, although growth was still averaging at 30 kg DM/ha in mid-October. The extra concentrate required to replace the shortage of grass has driven costs up and whole-crop silage has been purchased to add to stocks to feed the herd for the coming winter.  

Robert explains: “To help manage during the drought, we increased our grazing round to a 60-day rotation, to protect covers, bringing silage fields back into the rotation, pre-mowing high covers to encourage intakes and feed alternative forage to help protect covers.

The key with a grazing system is to always be flexible! This was the first year we have had to open up the silage clamp during the grazing season in 20 years”.

Dolphenby is very well set up to be a successful grazing farm, with the grazing infrastructure carefully thought out and put into practice across the grazing platform set on free-draining soil. The grazing platform can be accessed at any time during the grazing season via 5km of tracks made of concrete sleepers, stone and second-hand Astroturf, 50 water troughs and a single line electric fence around all paddocks. An initial expensive setup cost pays dividends that required little on-going maintenance.

Robert explained: “The key for us is grass is always first, which helps us run a robust and resilient business. Flexibility is essential for a consistent performance in a pasture-based system”.

Robert is currently in the middle of setting up a new unit which will be home to a split block calving 500 cow herd.


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