Last winter was a learning curve for low-cost milk producers who ran out of silage when cold weather delayed spring grass growth.
But on a positive note, Cheshire producer John Archer sees it as confirmation that there are huge financial benefits from early turnout.
Cash, which normally adds to a healthy bottom line, this year had to finance extra silage, concentrates and one more month’s housing.
“The financial damage is painful to think about.
It has been a dreadful winter and cost us a packet not just in feed, but also straw, slurry handling and labour.
It’s the first year we have had to buy in silage since we switched to block calving in 2000,” he says.
“Grass growth is a month behind, so it has elongated the whole process.
But I have realised how much we normally benefit when cows go out to grass.
The financial savings are huge and there is a mental lift.”
Mr Archer runs a 275-cow autumn calving herd at Bolesworth Hill Farm near Broxton, with a 300-cow spring calving unit three miles away.
Turnout for both herds is usually on 10 February, housing as late as the start of November for autumn calvers and the end of November for the spring herd.
Winter diets comprise grass silage, whole-crop and a blend fed as a TMR.
The aim for both herds is to maximise use of grazed grass with cows out for nine months of the year.
He hopes to use MDC’s grass+ program to help him claw back some of the winter’s extra expenditure by cutting back on bag fertiliser.
“We injected slurry this spring and I worked out how much NPK it supplied using grass+ standard values and it allowed us to cut back on bag N by 30kg/ha, which works out as 14.78/ha. We normally spread 125.5kg/ha (100 units/acre).
“Although autumn calvers went out as planned, normally we reduce silage at turnout, so that by 5 April they don’t get any more.
This year we had to keep feeding.
We have also gone round grazing a lot slower and are holding cows back, only just letting them out at night on 2 May.
Grazing is pretty tight and stocking rates only half what they should be.
“In a grass-based system, we rely on grass to grow.
When it doesn’t, it’s a problem, as our policy is not to carry any spare silage because it ties up cash.
That is how lean we run the business.”
Mr Archer says he has learned just how close to the edge he runs the herds.
The danger, he feels, is that he and other producers could overcompensate, planning for another tough winter by making more silage.
He believes this would be a mistake, as silage ties up too much money and delivers little return.
Despite the autumn herd alone eating its way through 1400t of grass silage and 400-500t of whole-crop, his approach is to deal with a problem when it arises, rather than waste time worrying.
So next winter, while there will be some provision for poor weather, the emphasis will be on the flexibility of buying-in forage stocks where needed, and making the most of block calving.
“Running block calving herds gives me more flexibility.
I can dry cows off early, shift cows off the grazing platform, or feed more concentrates to supplement grazing or silage.
This year I bought grass silage relatively easily here.
But it does take time and effort and it’s a diversion away from the main job, particularly around spring calving.”
Buying silage heaps was made easier using the section on silage density in the MDC’s grass+ reference manual (table 2).
The programme is aimed at improving all aspects of grassland management.
Besides the manual, Mr Archer and his staff use plate meters to measure grass growth and follow grass budgets to maximise efficiency.
Hence he knows that growth rates had picked up to 50-70kg/ha of dry matter a day by the first week of May, which was a month later than normal.
But growth rates have since shot up to 100kg/ha a day and he hopes they will continue to rise to the peak of 120kg/ha a day usually seen in mid-May.
“If growth rates don’t pick up, this will impact on silage for next winter.
I think we will make 30% less,” he adds.
Undaunted, he remains optimistic and says mid-season he will be better placed to make plans for next winter.