8 August 1997

GRASS: CHEAPEST

RESOURCE, SO USE IT…

The UK has a potential competitive advantage in producing milk from grazing. New Zealand dairy consultant Paul Bird explains how best to use this cheap resource

REDUCING farm costs through grazing means improving access to the grass, grazing more of the farm after turnout, including the silage ground, and being more flexible with the grazing area as grass growth fluctuates.

Access and tracks

Access is the key to ensuring there is more grazing in wet conditions and extending the grazing season. Cows can be grazed for a few hours and then removed from the field via gateways and tracks. When the same ground is only walked over once it minimises poaching. Tracks should be wide and higher in the middle than on the edges so water runs off.

Poaching is a problem in New Zealand also. Those farmers that have minimised poaching are prepared to graze for short periods of time and then take cows off the grass.

Grazing versus silage

Silage is grazings worst enemy. If you completely focus on silage, grazing will automatically take a back seat. Farmers have described grazing to me as what is left over after silage. This thinking is not conducive to maximising use of grass.

Instead, from turnout consider the whole farm as a grazing farm – not silage and grazing (assuming you can get access to the silage ground with the milkers). March, and in some counties February, should be a grazing month.

Consider grazing silage fields first after turnout and then shutting them up for silage. Use tracks to remove stock after a few hours of grazing in wet conditions. As long as poaching is minimised and there is a six-week period between grazing and silaging, contamination will not be a problem and significantly less silage will be required.

Flexibility

After turnout be more flexible in deciding on the grazing area. If growth is fast reduce the area available, if growth is slow increase the area for grazing. Walk the farm at least once a week modifying management according to the prevailing conditions.

Grass quality

Grazing pressure should be maintained right through the grazing season. If pastures are grazed laxly then the result is poor quality grass in the autumn, significantly less tillers/m sq, less milk/kg of dry matter and sheep are then needed to clean up trash in the base of the sward.

Maximising grass intake

To ensure high quality pasture is available throughout the grazing season, pastures cannot be left in a laxly grazed condition. This poses a dilemma for those wishing to maximise the intake of grazed grass. Maximising grazed grass intake means grazing long grass laxly. This maximises the amount of grass a bite. After this is done be prepared to use large mobs of other stock to clean up the pasture or use the mower. Dont just leave it.

Those producers prepared to accept a slight intake restriction, the aim being to graze the sward well the first time, have one less job to do.

Sheep grazing

Anyone organising sheep for winter grazing think again. The difficulty with the sheep is not the sheep themselves but how they are managed. They are used to improve grass quality over the winter. But this should have been done before the winter.

In the process of cleaning up the farm with sheep the pasture cover drops to a critically low level, severely restricting grass growth in late winter/early spring. The old saying, grass grows grass, applies here. With no leaf area there is no grass growth. The mass of grass roots is also low, contributing to poor grass growth.

To graze in March there must be high quality grass on the farm going into the winter. Winter kill will occur if you try and carry grass over the winter that is of poor quality.

Grazing systems

There is more than one grazing system that can work successfully – strip grazing, paddocks, set stocking and rotational set stocking.

Farmers that manage any of these systems well are continuously observing the grass growth and grass cover and modifying the area grazed according to the growth rate.

As we all know the average season never comes. Its always either above or below average. If a grazing system is rigidly adhered to, to cope with the average year you will get it wrong to a greater or lesser extent every year.

There is very little research to indicate that one grazing system is better than the other between April and October.

Some farmers have argued at discussion groups that they see when grass is building up or declining more quickly under a rotational system. There is also some evidence to suggest that to maximise grass intakes longer grass is required than is present on set stocked farms.

Extended grazing

If you are trying to extend the grazing outside the traditional grazing period some form of rotational system is essential in February, March, early April and into October, and November. Over these wetter months cows should not be walked over the same ground more than twice in any one rotation.

If you are strip grazing a back fence is critical. If you are not prepared to use a back fence, either go back to set stocking or permanent paddocks. If cows have access to the fresh new grass shoots three to four days after, the initial grazing regrowth on that area is severely penalised.

Calving pattern

At present milk prices, with a small margin between summer and spring milk, it is important to have as many cows as possible milking in the autumn and the spring to utilise as much grazed grass as possible. Many farmers are wisely focusing on spring-autumn calved cows.n

New Zealand dairy consultant Paul Bird – grazing pressure should be maintained right through the grazing season to maintain sward quality.

John Davis cuts small acreages of silage using his own machinery when the grass and weather allow.

James Shenton …more has to be made of the farms resources to make a profit from leased quota.