8 January 1999

Herd out all year by 2000

By Allan Wright

GRAZING has already been extended to 45 weeks on a dairy farm in south-west Scotland and the aim is to have cows out all year round during 2000.

Challoch Farm, Stranraer, is run by 27-year-old Mark Forster, who is going into his fourth year as a first generation farmer and has worked hard at creating a system which is as simple as possible.

"It is a low input, low output herd with as much as possible coming from grazed grass. I have no machinery apart from a farm bike and fertiliser spreader. I spend as little as possible on concentrates and run the place myself with two part-time helpers," he says.

Mr Forster toyed with simplifying even further by going for a flying herd and cutting out replacement rearing costs of £627 from birth to first calving. "I still think about it, but have yielded to the advice of my farming uncles and the man who supplied my cows that the potential dangers of a flying herd outweigh rearing costs," he says.

The 100ha (250 acres) at Challoch carry 168 milking cows and followers. All the 820,000 litres of quota have been bought and another 100,000 litres will be needed for 1999. Marks father, a solicitor in Stranraer, put up the money for the farm, but cows and quota had to be financed by Mark through bank borrowings. He started off leasing quota but decided that, if the system was to last until 2006, it was better to buy.

The Galloway climate is warmed by the Gulf Stream. Snow is rare and morning frosts seldom last beyond 9am. Mr Forster accepts that climate enables him to extend grazing beyond what could be done in other parts of Scotland. "But I am sure more could be done and every week is a big potential saving."

He thinks of himself as a grassland farmer first and a cow farmer second. "It just seems so straightfoward to me to make the cows do the work of grazing instead of cutting and carting and storing and feeding the stuff."

Average yield is 5000 litres, achieved without stress on cows that have the genetic merit to do much more. Natural service is used, Holstein bulls usually coming from nearby Coopon Carse, a noted high input, high output herd.

"It is a case of natural service taking time, labour, and semen salesmen out of the system. But the best thing I have done is to get rid of all the machinery and hand over silage work to a local contractor. I think too many dairy farmers spend too much time working with machinery and sitting on tractors when they might earn more from spending the time with their cows," he says.

The Forster exception is the farm ATV and fertiliser spreader, which allows him to practice little-and-often applications on grass paddocks. A little fertiliser was applied in the first week of December with full expectation of a response which would keep the cows out until Christmas Eve.

Mr Forster started with three cuts of silage a year plus whole-crop wheat. The contractor bill was £14,000. This past year, the bill is down to £6000 for two cuts of silage. Concentrate feeding is also being slashed – from about 500kg right down to 200kg, an annual saving of £9000. No concentrate at all is fed after November, when yields are down to about 10 litres a day.

The paddock system is used to give the cows a fresh bite whenever they go out. "Just now, cows are in at night and go out to a fresh paddock each morning. In the main season, paddocks are halved so that there is fresh grass night and morning. Dry cows are outwintered."

The grazing season is being extended at the front end using a rye/ryegrass mix that will be strip grazed from the second week of February until grass is ready for grazing a month later. He uses a plate meter to calculate the amount of available dry matter in the grazing area throughout the season.

Grazing paddocks cost £2500 to establish, but paid for themselves in one year, and are giving a 30% return on investment compared with set stocking.

The bottom line for Mr Forster is cost a litre – down to 9p – and overall profitability, which is his business, but certainly undermines cries of crisis in the industry. His target for 1999 is to produce milk at 8p/litre. &#42

SCOTTISHGRAZING

&#8226 Cows out all year by 2000.

&#8226 Paddocks – 30% return on investment.

&#8226 Aiming for 8p/litre.

Mark Forster aims to have his 168 cows out all year round during 2000.

Making cows do the work rather than cutting, carting, storing and feeding grass is far more straightforward, says Mark Forster.

Tight checks on feed costs maintain early lamb production

By James Garner

INTENSIVE early lamb production has an uncertain future unless finished new season lamb prices retain their premium next year.

Despite this, some producers remain confident that it is still one of the most profitable ways of keeping sheep as long as ewe concentrate costs can be kept low.

Early lamb production will continue, albeit under scrutiny, at a Warks sheep enterprise which begins lambing in January and depends on feeding straights to keep costs low.

The early lambing flock of 525 Mule ewes at Church Farm, Oxhill, are already housed, ready for lambing, and father and son partnership Tom and Paul Heritage are pleased with progress so far.

They tup 570 ewes with Suffolk rams for a month in August after synchronising ewes with Regulin. This year, fewer than 10% of ewes scanned barren or didnt hold to the tup. These ewes are moved into the March lambing flock, says Paul Heritage. "Our scanning percentage for the January lambers is slightly up at 186%.

"We run an intensive flock and some people might criticise us for buying grass through concentrates, but why not if it is profitable?"

With an average gross margin over the last five years of £1000/ha (£405/acre) their financial performance suggests efficiency. High stocking rates of 15-17/ha (6-7/acre) help, but costs must be controlled, he says.

Both are aware that their early lambing system will not always fit the economic conditions and Tom Heritage says that were prices to remain at their current low into the new seasons lamb sales, it will be difficult to make a margin.

"In the past we have found that the intensive option works, but if prices do not improve we might have to move to a more extensive, New Zealand style system." The Heritages feed a lot of concentrates, but this is an accepted part of the system, says Paul. "We used to feed a home-mixed ration, but found that despite high protein content the ewes did not milk as well on it.

"For a while we moved on to a concentrate compound and then maize gluten about four years ago. Maize gluten is far cheaper, costing about £10 a ewe for winter concentrate costs. But you must buy it in bulk to get the discount. It cost us £72/t this year. We buy 75-100t a year, in 25t loads."

They buy screened maize gluten, which costs an extra £6/t, but is worth it, says Paul. "One year we did not and the sheep did not like it as much because of the dust."

There is no compromise on quality either, he says. "Gluten has the right amount of energy, it is palatable and is about 18% protein."

The Heritages believe in feeding a high protein ration before lambing and so step up protein to 20% by adding soya at 90kg/t of gluten.

"Ewes are fed in walk-through feeders. The ration would be too dusty to feed on the floor."

Ewes are flat-rate fed, beginning at 0.5kg a head a day of maize gluten once housed to allow them to adjust to feeding and prevent acidosis. "This year they will have ad-lib silage because we cut extra grass in summer, though they normally have straw which acts as a gut-filler," says Paul.

"About a month before lambing, triplet-carrying ewes have 1.1kg a head of maize gluten, twins 0.7kg a head and singles 0.3-0.4kg a head.

"When straw is the main forage they have more gluten, about 0.1-0.2kg extra a ewe."

A fortnight before and after lambing, the ewes ration is boosted to 20% protein with soya to help them milk. "We used to use fishmeal and still would if there was no other choice, but ewes milk fine on vegetable protein."

The feed has to be mineralised before feeding, which costs an extra £6.50/t to ensure vitamins and minerals are balanced. This year, extra vitamin E has been added because of ADAS trial results showing improved lamb viability.

All early lambing ewes are housed in early December after shearing. "We have been shearing before housing for 15-20 years. You can see ewes body condition, they suffer less from heat stress, eat more feed giving higher lamb birthweights and mother their lambs better."

All lambs are creep finished trying to avoid the main market gluts, says Tom. "They average 17-19kg at a grade of R3L, with early lambs sold lighter, as we want them away earlier." &#42

MAIZEGLUTEN

&#8226 Buy in bulk.

&#8226 Screened for less dust.

&#8226 Balance minerals.

By feeding maize gluten winter concentrate costs are kept to £10 a ewe, say Paul and Tom Heritage.

Maize gluten variable

THIS years sheep margins make maize gluten an attractive option for commercial producers looking for a mid-range energy ration.

But producers should be wary of its variable quality, says Glos based independent nutritionist Pete Kelly. "Compared with compound feed its more variable in quality and taste.

"Therefore, budget energy and protein levels at the lower end of maize glutens range. The range is 18-22% for protein and 11.8-12.9 ME for energy levels, but even at the lower end it is still a good quality feed," says Mr Kelly.

"Safeguarding against ewes refusing to eat different batches of maize gluten can be done by introducing some of the next batch before the previous one has run out.

"Gluten is low in calcium so use a high calcium sheep mineral to balance it. Do not use a maize gluten mineral balance as this will include too much copper for sheep."

In flocks aiming for lambing percentages over 160%, ewes may need more protein, so adding soya at 10-15% will lead to better quality colostrum with more antibodies.

"Maize gluten is best bought screened, to take out dust, and in bulk to cut cost. Where storing difficulties exist, it may be possible to hire a big trailer for the winter at little cost from a local contractor." &#42