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Soil Farmer of the Year Farm Walk with Jeremy and Heather Dale

On a bright but windy day in October, farmers gathered in Shropshire to find out more about grass and soil management on the last of FCCT’s Soil farmer walks for 2016.

To watch the videos from the event, please click here

To see the photos from the day, click here

Jeremy and Heather Dale were hosting the last of the winning farm walks, form this year’s soil farmer competition, looking at how they prioritise soil health and resilience within their dairy business.  They run a 290 cow organic dairy herd, with is 100% pasture fed and for the last year has also been 100% antibiotic free.   The cattle are run on a New Zealand based spring calving system, with pastures traditionally based around ryegrass and clover, but they are shifting to a more diverse species mix which includes plantain, chicory and other legumes. The annual rainfall on the farm is about 650mm.

Cropping

All the farm is down to grass, with about 10-15% of the fields reseeded every year. The reseeding is done with a direct drill by a contractor (there isn’t a tractor on this farm), and the fields haven’t been ploughed for about 5 years.  The reason that they moved over to direct drilling is because of the intense nature of his grazing management; as such because they are looking for maximum production from their pastures, they can’t afford to take fields out of production for 4 months (while they are ploughed and reseeded) when he needs them to be growing grass.

Traditionally all drilling was done in the spring, however Jeremy has moved to some in the spring and some in the autumn.  Traditionally he has used Italian ryegrass as a marker species to assess the success of his reseed.  The management strategy on this farms is to aim for maximum utilisation of grass, and to grow lots of grass. Last year, Jeremy managed to grow 11.6t of dry matter per hectare (an impressive figure on an organic system), however looking to the future, he realises that there needs to be a balance in the system, and is therefore aiming to grow 10.5t DM/ha/yr consistently which he thinks is achievable whilst maintaining soil characteristics and health.

Traditionally the farm used to use aeration on any paddocks that were compacted, however (due to the lack of tractor and the health of the soil), they are using the worms to do the job for them.

Grazing management

The herd is run on a spring calving system with cows going out on the 1st February. ‘Magic day’ on the farm is the 16th April. The grazing platform is split into 33 paddocks which are rotationally grazed moving round the platform in 18 days in peak season and longer when the growth slows down.  Cows come off the grass end of November, and some of the herd are taken off farm for the dry period. The system is set up so that stock are always grazing the most suitable areas of the farm in wet weather to minimise soil damage, and there is a network of tracks to access all areas of the farm so that stock don’t have to cross paddocks for access purposes.

Data is key on this farm, grass is measured daily with a GPS radar machine attached to the back of the gator which measures residues when the cows come out of a paddock. All data is logged through the AgriNet software system and costs of production are calculated and scrutinised regularly to see how they stack up.

They are members of the local grassland discussion group Stargrazers and benchmarks his grass growth and productivity on a monthly basis with the other farmers in the group.  He is positive about the benefits of the discussion group in terms of new ideas and a forum to discuss what they are doing.

They are open about the fact that traditionally the farm was understocked, but explains that he feels that he has it right.  “You have got to back your farm” he explains, “stock it right and look after your soils so they look after you.”  He also explains that paying attention to stocking levels and soils, helps keep you sharp and on your toes about how things are performing.   Soil fertility is maintained through stocking volumes. As it is a large grazing platform it’s also about keeping the cows happy, and thought is put into how far they are walking each day. The cows only have to do one long walk a day, the other paddock is much closer to the parlour.

Soil management

On the farm, one of the key aims with soil management is to look at the idea of depth, and taking soil organic matter deeper by using deep rooted plants. This idea of going deeper, will also bring benefits in terms of consistency in productivity by using high organic matter and deep rooting plants to maintain growth during challenging climatic years.

Soils are tested to determine nutrient status and more recently (since early 2015) they have also been testing for organic matter.

Soil quality is of vital importance though, as Jeremy explains; “Managing the quality of our soils is something that we view as an integral part of running an ethical farm business.  Without quality soils we wouldn’t have the confidence to get certification as a pasture fed dairy farm because we can’t resort to hay and silage in times of forage shortage, we have to be able to consistently produce fresh pasture for our cows to eat.   Look after your soils and they will look after you.  Healthy, carbon rich soils are so important to our business.