7 June 2002

Extended grazing can satisfy growing herd

By Jessica Buss

LIFE is easier and profits are the same as four years ago on a Northern Ireland dairy farm, despite a milk price drop of more than 9p/litre.

The solution to declining profit has been to double cow numbers to 160 milkers, but not total farm output, according to Ken Gill, who farms 95ha (235 acres) of free-draining ground at Chapeltown, Ardglass. As cow yields increase, however, farm output has risen to about 800,000 litres/year.

His previous system was a typical autumn calving herd, relying on grass silage in winter. But he and other members of his discussion group decided that a low-cost extended grazing system, using spring calved cows, would be more profitable and easier to manage.

Although he has put in 1.5 miles of tracks, Mr Gill hasnt moved to a system in which he needs to move fences every day. Permanent two-day paddocks have been set up. "This ensures cows under pressure will get a good fill on the first day," he says.

With some grazing one mile away, grass is also managed so cows only take one long walk each day. "Cows can walk as far as you can see."

With only (64ha) 160 acres for grazing milkers, he also continues to feed concentrate to boost intakes. "We buffer feed citrus pulp when the residual grass left after grazing is below 1600kg DM/ha and when we are trying to build covers." Grass cover is estimated by eyeballing paddocks every two weeks.

The system also relies on growing long grass for dry cows to graze through the winter on some of the farms away ground. "We could house 100 cows, but wouldnt invest more money in housing. Last year only 60 thinner cows were kept in during December and January on a silage-based diet. The rest were outwintered." All cows were dry for two months.

Mr Gill sees a good future for seasonal production in Northern Ireland. "Most milk is processed for export, so why produce milk in winter? It is cheaper to build a processing plant than pay producers to produce milk from housed cows in winter."

But he is concerned about TB. He lost 40 cows to TB in 2000 and had to buy in cows of a type less well suited to a grazing system than those he is now breeding. He estimates the cost at about £20,000 in lost profits.

His next TB test is due shortly and he is buying spring calvers to ensure he is not left short next spring if he has any reactors this summer. "We are in the worst area of Europe for TB." He also points out that with its dry ground the area suits badgers and is home to a good number of them. &#42

Cows graze two-day paddocks to ensure they all get a good fill of grass on the first day, says Ken Gill.

&#8226 Cows walk a mile.

&#8226 Soils suit outwintering.

&#8226 TB concerns.