Nitram Award recognises highly professional dairy farming

Stowell Farms at Marlborough, Wiltshire, and its manager Gavin Davies won the Nitram Award, sponsored by CF Fertilisers, in the Food and Farming Industry Awards, with long term focus increasing dairy herd performance, reducing environmental impact and improving farm management despite an extremely challenging business environment.

The farm has seen major changes since Gavin Davies took over the role as Farm Manager in 2007. The farm, which currently totals 1350 hectares has 1500 breeding ewes, 80 beef cattle a 440-cow dairy herd and 336 dairy replacements, was running a 140-cow Holstein herd at the time. On Gavin’s arrival, a farm review was undertaken and the future of the dairy under scrutiny. The dairy needed major upgrades to take it into the future and all options were being considered. After an intense period of research and discussion, the decision was made to expand the dairy enterprise on the farm, and build a brand new 500 dairy cow unit on a brown field site.

Gavin strongly believes in the merits of mixed farming. With a mixed farming background, he understood the huge benefits cow and sheep manure can offer to a cropping system. However, the matter of location had to be considered. Located in a London commuter belt, it was vital that the farm minimised odour from the dairy in order to get planning approval for the new dairy and remain a positive addition to the local community. An anaerobic digester (AD) offered several opportunities; to utilise waste produced on the farm and produce renewable energy; providing electric to the farm and sell surplus to the grid whilst reducing odours and therefore not damaging relations with neighbours.

This has proved to be a valued decision. After a lengthy planning process, the dairy was completed in September 2011 and the AD has been functioning since September 2012. The 440 cow dairy herd is currently producing 14,000 tonnes of manure per year, which is separated into solids and liquid for utilisation on the farm.

The process is very scientific with the digester having to be managed, in simple terms, as a stomach. It is vital to feed it with a balance of foods in order for it to perform. In addition to the slurry, 8000 t of maize silage, rye silage (solely grown for this purpose) and waste feed are needed.

The liquids are applied using slurry tankers or umbilical cords on a wide range of crops including grass, barley, wheat, turnips and OSR with an application rate varying from 15-40cubic /ha. The solids are used on the maize and OSR areas. It has saved around £145,000 in fertiliser per year.

The electricity produced has exceeded expectations. The digester is currently achieving 96% of maximum output, averaging 481kWh annually out of a maximum of 499kWh. 15% of the total electricity generated supplies the farm, with the 85% excess electric being sold to the national grid.

The farm is also investigating ways in which to maximise use of the heating potential of the plant, such as providing heat for the grain drying facilities.

Despite being on a borehole, a rainwater harvesting network was installed when the new dairy was built to minimise water extracted from the land. This was purely an environmental decision. Water collected from rainwater supplies all water troughs and water for cleaning the parlour after milkings.

Gavin is also passionate about the flora and flauna on the farm, and enthuses about the progress made within the HLS Scheme. Enhancements have been made to hedgerows, wild bird covers and pollen and nectar mixes have been added, bird breeding plots have been allocated and bird boxes installed. Bird surveys are carried out to monitor increases in populations. Targeted species numbers have been observed and have seen an increase. Gavin is also very conscious how this benefits the public perception of farming to the general public.

In terms of soil management, Gavin aims for a non-inversion system. New technologies are adopted to minimise impact whilst ensuring land is provided with the necessary nutrients for a profitable crop. GPS and regular soil testing are used to allow for variable rates of nutrients to be applied. Gavin aims to be prescriptive in nutrient use.

Another advantage of mixed farming is the number of options available for controlling blackgrass. Gavin sees this as an increasing challenge for arable farmers. Growing maize is useful in the rotation for blackgrass management, as is growing rye which competes with blackgrass. He can also allocate fields to grass if he feels the area needs a break from an arable crop.

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