Hardworking hectares: A case study

In this blog, Feed & Grass Seed Manager Alasdair Ralston shares a case study of one of his farming customers and how they have been able to get the most out of one of their fields.

A few years ago, one of my farming customers in the Scottish Borders had an old grass field which was coming to the end of its life expectancy, with more and more grasses in the field that weren’t the productive and responsive grasses, but the older, native type.

He was beginning to get more weeds in it than what he would like and these are tell-tale signs of the field getting to the end of its lifespan. So, in autumn 2017, he put some cows on the field for winter and, if they damaged the field, he really wasn’t that bothered because he knew that the following year, he was ploughing it.

The cows absolutely destroyed the field during what was a very wet winter and, in spring 2018, he put in a whole crop mixture – a combination of barley, oats and triticale. He grew that and harvested it in the middle of July 2018.

The following day, he put in a forage crop mixture of stubble turnips and hybrid rape. He let it grow and, going into the winter, he put cows on it and he was able to keep 60 cows on that forage crop and grazed it off right up until they were due to come inside to calve in January/February 2019.

The advantage of that was that it cost the farmer a lot less money keeping them out in the field rather than bringing them inside and feeding them every day, bedding them every day, running tractors to do all of that and basically having to do everything for them.

During that time, the cows were also fertilising the field with their manure and improving the soil structure – a key thing that people often overlook.

The field only really sat empty until March 2019, when it was ploughed. It then went straight back into a whole crop mixture and the exact same thing happened: whole crop mixture, harvest, forage crop.

At present, he’s got a whole crop mixture in again and he’s had a few years of controlling those weeds that were beginning to ingress in the field. The reason he’s been able to control that is when he grows the whole crop mixture full of cereals, we at McCreath Simpson & Prentice supply the herbicides to get in control of that weed burden again.

When it gets harvested, the farmer has a decision to make, but it’ll likely have to go back down to grass because you can’t continuously grow forage crops in the same field year after year because of disease pressure. So I’d imagine it’ll be going back down to grass by the end of August.

This field, to me, epitomises what I like to call “Hardworking Hectares”, because not only is he keeping cows on the field during the winter, but during the spring and summer he’s producing a lot of feed for those store cattle. So that one field has given him both winter keep and winter forage.

Also, because the field hasn’t just gone from grass to grass and it’s had these rotations, it’s helped the soil structure massively. When it goes to grass now, there’s basically zero chance of that field having a pest called leatherjackets. If you have a long-term grass field and you decide to put it to grass again and don’t consider alternatives like whole crop or forage crop mixtures as a break, then leatherjackets can actually graze off the young grass before you have any livestock in it.

The farmer has another field that he wants to start this rotation on now and he’ll continue to do this with fields that are coming towards the end of their life expectancy.

What’s more, in that whole rotation I’ve described, Seed Director Paul Huntley is involved in supplying the whole crop mixture of barley and oats and I’m responsible for supplying the forage crop seeds for the kale and stubble turnips.

Then, Agrochemical & Technical Director David Cairns is involved in supplying the chemicals for the crop husbandry in both the whole and forage crop, Fertiliser Director David Barrett is involved with all of the fertiliser and lime required for growing all of the above and I’m back involved at the animal nutrition point through the Feed Department. There’s no other company I think could claim to be involved throughout the whole process.

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