Running the mixed unit at Caernarfon-based Glynllifon College has its challenges – with beef, sheep, dairy and pig enterprises all requiring tip-top management to keep them viable. No mean feat in the current economic climate. But farm manager Rhodri Owen has an additional remit – the unit’s management system also has to educate the producers of tomorrow about the importance of
sustainable farming that, not surprisingly, also includes maximising the use of home-grown forage.
Rhodri took on his current role in August 2014 and in just 18 months has already made considerable changes at the college farm. Most notable are a cropping policy shake up and switching the breeds in the beef, sheep and dairy enterprises.
“We had to adapt to thrive,” he says. “Changes were needed to keep the college’s farming business both viable and sustainable – in the short and long term. And the enterprises that we run here also need to reflect what’s happening on farms across the UK – particularly here in Wales, where many of our students come from the west of the UK. We must provide our students with experience and knowledge that will equip them to run productive, efficient and sustainable enterprises and businesses when they leave here,” he explains. Sounds daunting, but Rhodri has grasped the nettle and his changes are already making an impact – particularly on the cropping side.
Gone is the forage maize, which used to form part of the winter ration for both the beef and dairy enterprises. And in are short-term grass leys, kale and swede crops for out-wintering beef cattle and freshly lambed ewes.
“Our final maize harvest was in 2014 and we followed that ground – 40 acres in total – with Sinclair McGill grass seeds mixture Colossal, which is a short-term, high sugar, top yielding grass ley. “We were really pleased with the resulting grass crop and it certainly was ‘colossal’ in terms of yield and contributed to us having a lot of grass for grazing and silage in 2015,” says Rhodri.
It was grazed in spring by the college’s 300-strong flock of Lleyn ewes plus 300 Welsh mule ewes, which are turned out once they’ve lambed. “And we graded lambs a month earlier than in 2014 –that’s how well the ley performed. It also highlighted the additional grass yield to be had from a reseed. We took a lot of silage from the reseeded leys – three cuts. We could have taken a fourth cut, but decided to graze livestock later into the autumn instead. We didn’t rehouse young stock until late October.”
They introduced the Lleyn breed because they wanted to develop a highhealth-status and closed flock, capable of producing lambs off forage. The ewes are from easy-care breeding and are prolific and not too big, weighing around the 65kg liveweight. “We have 300 pure breds and our aim is to breed our own replacements utilising EID technology to source the most suitable ewes.”
Rhodri also believes that the lambs, just like the beef cattle from what is steady becoming a Stabiliser beef herd as opposed to a more traditional Welsh Black x Limousin suckler herd, are more saleable.
The suckler herd consists of hardy Welsh Black cattle with outstanding foraging capability. “And we have introduced some Stabiliser bloodlines, through cross breeding, as a trial. The suckler herd is out wintered and calves are reared on milk and forage to eight months old. All male calves are left entire and are finished in a feedlot off farm,” explains Rhodri.
Stabiliser is a composite ‘concept’ from the US, comprising Hereford, Red Angus, Simmental and Gelbvieh. “And the breed is meant to be more fertile, easy calving and not too big – just 550kg.” Again, its size and grazing ability – not to mention hybrid vigour – make it well suited to the Welsh climate. And we can breed our own replacements.”
“The volatility seen in our commodity markets influences our future breeding and farming systems, so we’re looking to build herds and a flock that is better equipped at handling the lows and making the most of the highs,” he says. “It’s not something that can be done overnight, but we’ve made a start and I feel that we’re moving towards a more sustainable future.”
He wants to manage livestock that are less reliant on high inputs and better able to utilise the cheaper home-grown feeds, such as grass and other forage crops. And that low-cost system is only sustainable if you have the genetics to support it. That’s the directions we’re taking by introducing new breeds and crops.”
Kale is now grown to over-winter in-calf sucklers, which will calve in April. “Eight acres of variety Caledonian were sown in late July,” says the college’s crop production lecturer and Sinclair McGill merchant Esmor Hughes, who is working closely with Rhodri to develop a rotation that offers more home-grown forage to all three livestock enterprises. “It was direct drilled into a ‘sprayed off’ field of permanent pasture. Direct is effective because it saves on establishment costs, compared to ploughing and cultivation. And slug pellets and fertiliser were applied post drilling.”
The sucklers, which have previously always been housed during the winter, began strip grazing the crop, with an electric back fence, on December 1. “And they have done extremely well on it,” adds Rhodri. “They have maintained body condition and they look well and clean too. Their performance is all the more impressive when you consider what a wet winter it has been – one of the wettest on record.”
This crop, which the cattle finished grazing in mid-March, will be followed by Colossal Red – a grass mixture with red clover – to produce high protein, big-bale silage. The lambed ewes are also doing well this winter on a 12-acre crop of Gowrie swedes. They were turned out in mid-January, post lambing, and again this crop will keep them fed until mid-March. “There was a phenomenal amount of feed there,” says Rhodri. “They ate the tops first – we abandoned our strip grazing plans and gave them the run of the whole field because weather conditions were far from ideal and they needed to be able to seek shelter. But it’s still worked really well and they’ve eaten the roots too. The lambs have also enjoyed a nibble.”
This crop was sown in early July, into a ploughed field. “It established really quickly and got off to a flying start,” adds Esmor. “The college has grown swedes for over-wintering ewes in the past, but has used the same variety for many years. I recommended something new in 2015 and we’ve been thrilled with the results. We ended up with a field full of good sized swedes with plenty of fodder on the top too.” Rhodri freely admits that the ewes have thrived on it and he will definitely be growing Gowrie again this year – 2016 – for next winter.
One the dairy side, pure Holsteins are out and cross breeding with Norwegian Red and British Friesian sires is in. “Again, to try and mitigate some of the market volatility,” says Rhodri. Hybrid vigour is one plus, which certainly helps to improve herd fertility – vital when we’re looking to move to block calving in the autumn: “So the students all get a chance to get involved with both calving, milking and fertility management,” he adds.
The breed also has a quieter temperament – again essential with so many students handling the cattle – as well as better health and longevity and good feed conversion efficiency. “They’re certainly designed for grazing and so we’ll look to make more of the grass for more weeks of the year. Block calving and a switch in breed is helping us to achieve this extended grazing season.”
The herd’s annual average yield stands at 8,000 litres, of which 3,000 litres is from forage. And Rhodri sees great scope to improve this and hopes to push it up to between 3,500 and 4,000 litres. It’s about survival too. “We’re price takers – like most other farm businesses. “We need to take control of our costs of production. The challenge is to produce top quality produce at the least cost, utilising the best genetics, forages and grazing techniques available to us.”
The right forages
Selecting the right forage depends on location, timing and resources, but to help growers decide on the forage combinations that suit their farm, Limagrain includes this table in its Essential Guide to Forage Crops which is available to download from the website (see below) or if you would like a hard copy please email firstname.lastname@example.org