On the ‘up’: Down dairy farmers pipped at the post for UK grassland award
Northern Irish dairy farmers Beattie and Reggie Lilburn have been announced as runners-up in this year’s British Grassland Society’s Grassland Farmer of the Year competition, which was held last month.
A father-and-son team, from Dromore, Co. Down, the Lilburns milk 236 pedigree Holstein, autumn-calving cows and rear 100 heifers for replacements and for sale on their 204ha farm – Hillcrest Farm. The land is enclosed within one block, allowing most of it to be grazed.
The forage area is made up of 152ha of grass and 16ha of whole crop wheat silage. Long-term perennial ryegrass leys using DLF mixtures are mainly grown, with 2.8ha of shorter-term Italian Ryegrass leys grown for silage and cut at 10-week intervals. Winter wheat and barley are also grown to feed the cows and provide straw for bedding.
Of the 8,521L produced by each cow, 4,175L comes from forage and 2,735L from grazed grass – with 4.12% butterfat and 3.28% protein content.
Grazed grass is the most sustainable way to feed cows, according to Reggie Lilburn. He operates an 18-22 day grazing rotation – using 26 paddocks of 1ha each – from March 1 to September 1.
Expanding on this, Lilburn said: “We have invested in an extensive network of tracks, which gives us flexibility when grazing.
Each paddock has three exit/entry points to minimise poaching in wet weather. Careful construction and maintenance of the tracks has also significantly reduced herd feet problems, despite some walks being as long as 1km.
Grass topping starts in late May after every grazing using a disc mower. Grazed grass supports the production of 24L per cow in May 2017, before supplementation, according to Lilburn.
Beattie Lilburn measures and records grass growth with a platemeter weekly and the results are used to budget grass allocation accurately. The aim is to produce 14t to 16t of dry matter per hectare with 80% utilisation.
On the matter of reseeding and fertiliser use; all swards are reseeded on a strict seven-year rotation with winter wheat and barley as break crops.
Grazing land receives 270kg/ha of nitrogen fertiliser and silage land has 238kg/ha applied – all within a strict Nutrient Management Plan (NPA), which balances slurry and bought-in fertilisers. A trailing shoe slurry spreader has improved the utilisation of organic manures, according to the farmers.
Soil tests, carried out every two years, highlight the need for lime application to maintain the pH level at 6.5.
Reggie Lilburn is enthusiastic and committed to a long-term future in agriculture in Northern Ireland.
“Land prices here make land the most limiting factor to business expansion, so the most profitable route for the business to grow has been to increase milk yield and quality.
“We have five business objectives: to make a sustainable profit; to enhance the farm environment; to allow the business to increase its net worth; to maintain high levels of animal welfare; and – through the use of labour-efficient facilities – to allow a better quality of lifestyle.
We feel that the farm is now placed to build on its current strengths and that the future is looking good.
The Lilburns are members of the Ulster Grassland Society (UGS) and have had success in its competitions over the years, including being crowned the UGS Grassland Farmer of the Year in 2001, 2010 and 2016.