18 September 1998

PLEASE, DONT FORGET YOUR

GRASS ROOTS

Challenge traditional advice

to help find profitable

solutions using grazed

grass more efficiently. Farm

manager Christian Fox

takes us back to basics

with grass management

AN average dairy farm today carries out more complicated genetic operations than a human fertility clinic did 25 years ago and has more complex machinery than a Formula One racing team of the early 1970s.

The modern milking parlour may be more reminiscent of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise but are we any more profitable than our forefathers? Certainly not light years ahead.

We are so wrapped up in the technological and genealogical revolution that we have forgotten some of the simple farming practices that are literally the grass roots of dairying.

Too many farmers rely on free advice from experts selling one product or another. Using basic, cheap practices – grazed grass, self-feed silage and clover-rich leys – does not sell cake, feed wagons or fertiliser.

One criticism levelled at New Zealand consultants is that they propose a system unsuitable for the UK and, therefore, confusing to farmers. But I work closely with some of these consultants and visit farms they advise. I have never heard anyone suggest a New Zealand system for UK farms.

What I have seen is a questioning of our practices and a challenge to traditional advice. Those of us who champion simple systems believe its time to go back to basics.

Cheapness a fact

No one doubts grazed grass is a cheap feed. It is not always the cheapest. He who farms in the shadow of a whisky distillery or large brewery may find an alternative.

To produce milk well on a grass diet, you have to fulfil the same criteria as when feeding anything else: The right quantity of the right quality. Those who tell me that grazing doesnt work, or cows do better on silage, usually fall down on one of these points. Anyone who uses a feed wagon will know all about getting high intakes and this knowledge translates directly to grazing.

To maximise intake, a cow needs a full-sized bite every time she puts her head down. This equates to about 12-15cm (5-6in) in grass height, which in turn needs a new area of grass of this height each day. If you only fed a complete diet ration once a week, cow intake would decrease by day four. Yet cows are often expected to perform from a field grazed for four days or more.

To provide fresh grazing for each day, split fields into blocks or paddocks, each suitable for one days grazing. Building a feed wedge is also important.

This means cows graze the paddock with the tallest grass – 12-15cm (5-6in) – and the shortest grass is in yesterdays area. In between are paddocks growing in steps, depending on how many days since they were last grazed.

Building a feed wedge is straight-forward. As a starting guide, at 15cm (6in) high you will feed roughly 75 cows on a hectare a day (30 cows/acre/day), assuming your cows are fed little else. If you feed 25% of their intake as concentrates you will feed 25% more cows on a hectare or an acre. Remember, this is a guide not the gospel. Let your cows update you on a regular basis.

Create paddocks

Work out how many hectares or acres your herd needs each day and create some paddocks with temporary electric fencing. Assume you will graze the whole farm, but in times of high growth you will only use a proportion of these paddocks, cutting the rest for silage. This year has been exceptional – between May and August my cows only needed a 12-day rotation.

Start grazing the paddock closest to the 12-15cm (5-6in) target height. Dont worry if its a little over or under. However, if you are well short of this, start as best you can by grazing each area for 24 hours but use some buffer feed. Only feed enough buffer to make up for a shortfall, not to replace grazing.

Now all you have to do is look ahead and behind. Are paddocks ahead going to be ready in time? Is grass behind the cows recovering well? If growth is rapid you should by-pass paddocks to keep within the target grazing height; if growth is too slow, you can introduce other feeds to slow the rotation.

Quality is tied in with these practices. When cows are correctly allocated an area of pasture they clean up and quality is maintained. Quality only suffers in areas which are poorly grazed, leading to build-up of stem, or have high rejection due to dung and urine patches.

Rejected areas build up over a season and sometimes mowing is the only solution. Dry cows or other stock can be used to clear them to good effect, when numbers are sufficient. When you do mow, use a mower not a topper. Cows only graze down to where a paddock has been cut. A topper leaves a high residual and so will the cows when its ready to graze again.

Potential profit

Adopting a simple strategy for feeding cows does not mean they will not perform. Feeding silage when it is being made is wasting money.

You dont need a spring calving herd, a New Zealand cow or a Pembrokeshire farm to make better use of grass. You dont even need a plate-meter or a head full of kg/DM/ha figures. If you begin to rely more on grazing in cow diets, some or all of these things may follow – but they should not lead. &#42

MAKING MORE OF GRASS

&#8226 Question current system

&#8226 Challenge cows

&#8226 Better grass management