19 August 1997

More grass = more profit

Farm production systems based on high use of grazed grass have a huge potential to improve profit on British dairy farms. That message – and why and how to get milk more from grazed grass – was the main theme of last weeks British Grassland Society/FW conference Grazing for a Shorter Winter. Sue Rider reports

YEAR-round calving makes it impossible to maximise grass use and is a disaster for anyone seeking high profits.

The more grazed grass in the diet, the greater profits, New Zealand consultant Leonie Foster told the British Grassland Society/FW organised Grazing Management for a Shorter Winter conference at J G Quickes and Partners, Newton St Cyres, Devon.

"The amount of grazed grass in a cows diet is the only reliable predictor of profit, not tractors, buildings, parlour technology or yield a cow," she told the 150 dairy farmers at the conference.

Ms Foster, who has been working in Eire for two years now, said the most important lesson she had learnt from working in dairy industries at opposite sides of the world, and at extremes of subsidisation, was that capital investment in depreciable items, and all the high inputs that come with them, was strangling not only profits, but the ability to grow the business.

"Dairying in Europe has become an industry that exists to support cake merchants, contractors and the fertiliser industry at the expense of the farmer." That was because high milk prices allowed farmers to forget about grass, she said. "Grazed grass is grossly undervalued. You have been fooled into thinking concentrates are better than grass." (see panel.)

Ms Foster was shocked at how few farmers could tell her how much money they were making. "This speaks loudly of an industry that is, as yet, production orientated, not profit orientated. "If you want to maximise farm profit, where milk sales are your main income, yield a cow can not dominate your thinking. The most profitable farmers I have seen are those maximising the potential of grazed grass." (see case study opposite.)

Cows grazing from February to December would earn you twice the taxable surplus as those grazing from April to November she said.

But high prices had led Irish farmers to opt for high cost systems focused on maximum length of lactation to get maximum production a cow. "This sort of system turns its back on the growing season and focuses on winter. Grazed grass becomes a bonus, silage a priority."

Ms Foster said the art was to get as much quality grass directly via the cows molars into the bulk tank as opposed to via the depreciating silage pit and into the depreciating automatic feeders, into the cow inside the depreciating shed. "The biggest limitation to getting high production off grass is not the cow, the land or the climate, it is what people believe is possible."

Leonie Foster (inset) told dairy farmers last week that grazed grass is grossly undervalued. "You have been fooled into thinking meal is better."

Value of grazed grass

Grazed grass is grossly undersold. Leafy, high quality grass is 11.5-12 ME and costs 3p for 1kg DM; concentrate is of lower quality at 10-11 ME and costs almost seven times as much at 19-20p for every 1kg DM; silage is more than three times the cost – and is of lower value than grazed grass.

How long is a winter?

If you like a long winter, manage your grass like this, said Ms Foster. Take a big second cut of silage, or worse a third cut and stay on a quick 20-day grazing rotation in late summer until the grass runs out in October because growth slowed and you cut it all. Minimise growth by keeping pasture cover low. Put cows in to eat the grass you recently cut with a machine. Just as the ryegrass puts up new shoots to regrow make sure you annihilate any chance it may have of regrowing by set stocking a few dry stock around the farm – better still bring in 300 sheep and destroy the chance of having any grass before next April. Observe the known fact that little grass grows over winter. No grass on farm before winter equals no grass in spring. Stay inside until April because if you went outside in February:

&#8226 You would run out of grass by March.

&#8226 You would damage the paddocks as they have little grass cover for protection and cows must graze for longer on short grass.

&#8226 Cows are inside for so long you need so much silage that if you go out before April you wont get enough silage.

"Well done. You have achieved a five-month winter and will be able to empty those silage pits in time to put the next crop in," she said.

Farm case study

More grass in the diet equals more profit. Take the example of a 360,000-litre Irish farmer who shifted his system from all-year-round calving and five months inside to spring calving and one month inside, said Ms Foster. He used to supply 6300 litres a cow from a long lactation and a high input of silage and cake. Only five years ago the accountant told him his net worth was going backwards. In 1996 he ran more cows on the same acreage, supplied 4050 litres a cow over a shorter lactation, used 100kg cake a cow and achieved a net profit before tax of 17.8p/litre, or £64,000. That is after all costs – depreciation, replacement heifers, fixed and variable costs, excluding interest.