Meet the Forage For Knowledge contributor - Charlie Russell

Charlie Russell is Estate Factor and Farms Manager for Glenapp – a rural business near Stranraer where one of the challenges is usually to cope with over 1,500 mm annual rainfall, and this year turned into coping with a six-week drought.

The business

Glenapp is a 5,500 ha estate south of Ballantrae, South Ayrshire, Scotland, owned by the Inchcape family. Enterprises are focused on farming, forestry and renewables, plus sporting and property.

The dairy farm

Altitude: 0–178 m

Annual rainfall: 1,500 mm

Soils: shallow loams over rotten rock

Topography: undulating

Rotational grazing for 11 years on a 550 ha grazing platform, but as cow numbers have fallen currently 427ha. Infrastructure allows cows to walk to every hectare.  

The cows

Nine hundred cows - 25% Jersey genetics and 75% Friesian; 400 R1s plus 420 in-calf R2s; block calving in spring starting 1 February and finishing 10 April. Milk yield 5,700 l from 710 kg cake fed in the rotary parlour. Turnout 12 February.

What’s the grazing season been like this year?

Overall, Charlie says it’s been a good year. But, it turned dry in May and June, and he is now playing catch-up with silage making, having started September 35% short of silage. Flexibility will be crucial to juggle forage stocks for winter: there are 700 store cattle that can be sold to release silage for the dairy herd.

"We turned out on 12 February, had a slow start and didn’t see our usual phenomenal growth due to the dry weather, but we made Magic Day after our first round on 23 April and got our decent first cut”, explains Charlie.

“Then we had no rain for six weeks from mid-June, made just half of our second cut and had to graze the rest of it and all of the third cut. We are now trying to fill pits with fourth and fifth cuts at a time when we should be building covers for autumn grazing. It’s a struggle. We’ve never experienced such an intense, prolonged dry period like that before.”

How much grass can you grow?

Although this year’s early spring growth wasn’t great, grass topped 119 kgDM/ha/day on 11 August. Quality remained high with close to 12 ME and over 21% protein. Having rotationally grazed paddocks for 11 years, Charlie has seen an increase in output through careful management.

Yields now average 13 t DM/ha across the platform with individual paddocks ranging 8t–19t. This is getting tighter as reseeding improves swards. “It was 4–12 t. Some of the better yield is to do with soil type, but we find that as we get the pH right (we have spread over 4,500 t of lime over the past 10 years) and sort the grass mixes when reseeding – it all helps”, he says.

How are you building resilience in a grazing system?

This year’s weather blip was unusual, although Charlie believes they’ve had a few ‘warnings’ before. Being on top of grass surpluses by taking them as silage and focusing on getting the wedge right will be important to keep grass in front of cows.

However, he also saw a huge difference on paddocks that had been subsoiled: “It lets the grass roots get down further, and where we have got the right pH, P and K and grass mixes, these paddocks kept growing longer, so it’s getting the fundamentals right to keep grass growing.”

Next year, the farm will install a geothermal grass drier to turn surplus grass into a quality forage or, when pelleted, a parlour concentrate to replace some of the bought-in soya: “This will give more resilience from home-grown feed”, he adds.

The farm has also been cutting nitrogen inputs by 10% a year for the past four years. Introducing red and white clover into swards is working well; plantain is proving difficult. “We don’t know why, but it’s proving exceptionally challenging to establish – some of it even had 12 months’ delay in germination. We have some good strips, and the cows like it. I can see it as a massive benefit as its deep roots help with compaction; it’s palatable and good together with ryegrass.”