20 November 1998


Managing herds to cope with hot, dry conditions

means zero grazing while, showers and fans are

common in Italys main dairying region.

FW European editor Philip Clarke reports

LIMITED access to land, blisteringly hot summers and a thousand years of tradition – those are the main reasons why cows never go out to graze in the main dairying region of northern Italy.

"It may seem strange to farmers from northern Europe," says Giacomo Pirlo, who runs the National Institute of Animal Productions dairy farm at Porcellasco, near Cremona. "But here in the Po valley we have to make the best use of our limited resources. The cows have never gone out and people have no right to tell us they should."

Not surprisingly, such a strong cultural attachment to zero grazing has led to highly specialised management and some fairly startling statistics.

Average farm size in the area is about 60ha (150 acres) – big by Italian standards – and this may be used to support up to 150 milkers. Average yields of over 10,000 litres are common, while margin over total feed cost approaches 20p/litre on some units.

Stocking rates are lower at Porcellasco, where about 100 milkers are supported by 80ha (200 acres), reflecting the farms status as a research centre.

Home-grown feed

Over 70% of the animals feed is home-grown, principally maize, alfalfa and rye grass. Maize is harvested in August and September, typically producing 33%-35% dry matter silage. "One hectare of ground may yield 60t or 70t of forage maize in the summer, and is immediately re-sown to rye grass to produce a crop for cutting the following spring," says Dr Pirlo.

Up to six cuts a year are possible, with the first going for silage and the remainder being used for hay – even as late as September. "We use silage here because our milk is for drinking. But on many farms, where the milk goes for top quality Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, silage is not allowed," explains Dr Pirlo. "But they do get a better milk price," he adds.

Cows are grouped in buildings by stage of lactation, and fed accordingly. Production averages 8000 litres, with 3.7% butterfat and 3.4% protein, though intense heat last summer pushed all three of these down.

"Another problem we have in this region is nitrate pollution," says Dr Pirlo. "National laws say we have to store manure for at least six months to let it dry, and there are also rules on stocking rates."

These rules are taken to the limit at Mauro Bianchessis Spring Farm, Castel Gabbiano near Cremona. Over 150 milkers, and a similar number of dry cows and followers, are run off just 40ha (100 acres). Milked three times a day, they currently produce over 37 litres each of 3.1% butterfat, 3.45% protein milk. First calvers do even more at 50 litres a day, with 3.3% butterfat and 3.5% protein.

Almost all the land around the cow sheds is down to maize, which makes up the bulk of the 18% protein diet ( see table 1). "I prefer to concentrate on just one crop and do it well," says Mr Bianchessi. "Mostly we ensile our maize, cutting it a bit long for rumen stimulation. This year we achieved 35% dry matter."

Bought-in rations

Other feed is bought in, including baled alfalfa, soya beans and meal, cotton seed and corn flakes. Total feed cost is around ItL200/litre (7.3p/litre), which, compared with a milk price of over ItL700/litre (25.5p/litre) leaves a generous margin. Additional income comes from selling four-day-old veal calves at a buoyant ItL7000/kg liveweight – equivalent to 255p/kg lw.

"Low butterfat does not concern me," says Mr Bianchessi. "I dont get paid for it anyway, and it also frees up an extra 100,000 litres of quota."

Calving is all year round, with an extended index of 385 days. Heifers calve at 23 months. "We try to avoid summer calvings, because of the high temperatures, which can average 35 degrees. The cows body temperatures rise by between one and one-and-a-half degrees, which can be stressful."

As is common on most dairy farms in the region, showers and fans operate in the open-sided buildings during the summer months, running constantly from 9am to 9pm. "We dont just spray them, we wash them!" says Mr Bianchessi.

This, not surprisingly, gives rise to a hefty electricity bill, though the water comes free from the farms own bore hole.

Milking cows are also closely monitored using a computer-linked pedometer. This measures the number of steps an hour each animal takes and acts as an early warning system for any health problems. The herd average is about 80 steps. If a cow is well above this, the chances are she is on-heat. If she is below, she may be lame.

Feet management is a crucial element of the zero grazing system, with cows living on slats. Hooves are trimmed routinely at drying-off time. And, while it is hard to breed specifically for low lameness, Mr Bianchessi does try to avoid bulls with a known problem in this area.

"My selection process is very simple," he says. "I go for lines that meet my needs. That is, milk, milk and more milk." With margins over feed costs so high, it is easy to understand why. &#42

Maize silage 20.0

Dried alfalfa 2.5

Roasted soya 2.0

Soya husks 1.0

Cotton seed 1.5

Cornflakes 6.0

Soya meal 2.5

Buffer* 0.5

Protein meal 0.5

* Sodium bicarbonate, calcium carbonate, magnesium oxide, sodium chloride, bicalcium phosphate.

Cows at the National Institute of Animal Productions farm average 8000 litres, relatively low in a region with many 10,000 litre herds.

Maize makes up most of the cows diet, fed mainly as high DM silage.

Nitrate pollution is a risk in the

area round Porcellasco, says Giacomo Pirlo. Tough laws control it.