Policy: Late in, early out…
Setting up for winter and
early spring turnout was
the subject of a grazing
discussion group meeting
in Staffs last week.
Emma Penny reports
GRAZED grass and concentrates alone are currently sustaining milk yields of 35 litres from fresh calvers on one Staffordshire dairy unit. But housing and opening the silage clamp are being considered as winter weather starts to bite.
Steve Brandon, who milks 160 cows on the 101ha (250-acre) New Buildings Farm, Hopton, Stafford, began to increase reliance on grass three years ago, introducing a rotational paddock system.
The herd, which calves from August to March – with two-thirds calved by late November – produces an average of 7500 litres, with 4000 litres off forage.
August and September calved cows are currently averaging 34.8 litres and 35.5 litres respectively from high quality grazed grass and about 9kg concentrate. October calved cows are giving 31.5 litres from grass and about 7kg concentrate. Average current daily yield from grass is about 15 litres, says Mr Brandon.
Cows were turned out on Mar 21 this year – much earlier than the past average turnout date of Apr 20 – which resulted in much lower costs. "We are looking at early turnout again."
Current grass growth is 25-30kg DM/ha, with growth dipping during one particularly cold autumn spell to 14-15kg DM/ha. "But before that, growth averaged 55kg DM/ha. I have only been measuring grass since April this year, but have been surprised at how much cold reduces growth rates."
He plans to graze cows until end of November, and has started the last round of grazing. Heifers and dry cows are currently following behind the milkers to graze down paddocks hard and leave swards in a suitable state for over-wintering. Cover when the milkers leave paddocks is 1900-2000kg DM/ha, and this is taken down to 1400-1500kg DM/ha by followers.
After grazing by milkers, paddocks are divided into day feeds for followers using temporary electric fencing to ensure thorough grazing. Potential difficulties caused by rain and high stocking rates have been minimised by ensuring followers graze individual areas for no more than 24 hours.
According to BGS grazing consultant Paul Bird, Mr Brandons policy of turning all cows out in March rather than trickling out milkers from early February, means it is less vital to build up a grass wedge for spring grazing as growth will have increased by March.
However, clumps round cowpats still remained in swards after grazing residual grass, and discussion group members were concerned about effects on spring grazing quality.
Although some felt mowing might be one option to spread out dung, Mr Brandon felt this was a cost; he would rather bear the loss of some spring grass on rejected areas, although tight stocking at turn-out would also help.
"If we put cows out earlier when grass is scarce – particularly as they are all turned out at once – they should graze down clumps, reducing concerns for the second round of grazing."
One group member felt that mowing while followers were mopping up residuals was an effective solution, breaking up cowpats, reducing the height of clumps and allowing the grass round clumps to be eaten.
Mr Bird said that early turnout would help to reduce wastage of tall grass. Mr Brandon also plans to graze all grass at turnout, rather than shutting up areas for silage immediately.
But housing, rather than turnout, was uppermost in Mr Brandons mind. "The weather has become much colder, and we expect some severe frosts this week. We fed first-baled silage at grass yesterday. We are considering opening the clamp today, and are also thinking about housing cows at night as we start serving soon."
The group felt that cows should be left out for longer before housing, and that the clamp should also remain closed for the time being because average grass cover on the farm was high, at 2500kg DM/ha the previous week.
One group member felt that the cows ability to eat grass wouldnt be compromised by the freezing conditions, and Mr Brandon agreed the silage might reduce the cows willingness to eat grass.
"However, I want to ensure that we have no fertility concerns when it comes to serving, so cows will probably be in at night and fed silage within the next week."
* Grass growth slowing
* Graze residuals hard
* Feed wedge less vital
Introduction of rotational grazing, and better use of grass has proved successful on one Staffs farm, but has posed questions about future changes. Emma Penny reports
INCREASED reliance on grass, a move to rotational grazing and extending the grazing season have worked successfully on Steve Brandons Staffs dairy unit, but that now means other questions have to be answered.
Mr Brandon, who milks 160 cows at New Buildings Farm, Hopton, Stafford, is keen to increase profitability and make full use of improvements which have been made to the farm over the last few years.
"We started using paddocks three years ago, when we set up eight or nine, and have divided the remaining grassland over the last couple of years. We have also stopped calving all year round, with two-thirds calving from August to late November, and tail-enders until March."
Currently, August calved cows yield about 35 litres from grazed grass and 9kg concentrate.
But Mr Brandon is considering moving calving back another month yet, starting in September. "We are wondering about late autumn or winter calving."
He also demands reasonably high yields from his pedigree herd, currently averaging 7500 litres off 1.7t/cow concentrate fed in the parlour. "We have 1.1m litres of quota, and lease a further 100,000 litres on a three-year contract which ends in March. Do we replace this, or reduce yields?"
Next spring, he plans to discontinue leasing 16ha (40 acres) of grass bought annually at auction. "We also have two years of silage in the clamp."
In addition, Mr Brandon is considering whether he should continue to grow cereals. The farm generally produces quality wheat crops, but grass is vital as a break crop.
Members of a discussion group, led by BGS grazing consultant Paul Bird, felt that with peak grass growth occurring in mid-April, Mr Brandon would be better to calve in mid-February. Selling youngstock would help fund purchase of spring-calving cows, while the autumn calving cows could be sold in the autumn after a summer at grass.
Spring calving would reduce silage requirements, and with two years worth of silage in the clamp, Mr Brandon could therefore graze all grass throughout the season, and comfortably support spring and autumn calvers.
Rapidly phasing out the arable enterprise would help reduce fixed and variable costs, and would provide a cost saving option, rather than increasing output. This would also provide more available grazing area, meaning Mr Brandon could increase cow numbers to 200 – a number the farm infrastructure could cope with comfortably.
Producing within current quota limits would mean an average yield of about 6000 litres for the 200 cows, which would reduce concentrate use to 0.5t/cow or less.
However, his consultant, Ian Browne, said that Mr Brandons aim was to increase profit, rather than cost cutting which would limit production.
"Calving 200 cows from November to January, when they can be fed on cheap grain and the most difficult part of lactation can be managed indoors may be a better option, with yields of 6750-7200 litres. The pattern of grass growth would match yield, while in a poor summer, when grass growth is reduced, cheap bulk feeds could be bought to bolster yields."
Mr Brandon felt that both plans had their merits, and is already planning to move calving to October through to early February. "That would mean we could use the winter to take cows up to a reasonable yields while their feed is under control. I am also uncertain about serving cows at grass due to potential for good conception rates but high embryo losses."
But the key concern with making changes to the system was that there was no knowledge of what farm potential actually was, pointed out Mr Browne. "Cold winters and dry summers are a problem here, but rotational grazing has helped that. However, if we bought-in spring calving cows, and grazed the entire farm that would change things."
He is also worried about lack of knowledge about the effects of feeding less concentrate to high genetic cows. "There arent any guidance rules, so we feel a compromise yield of about 7000 litres may be right."
* Spring calving.
* More grass, no crops.
* Bigger herd.
* Lower yields.
* Reduced concentrate use.
Steve Brandon (centre right) plans to graze cows until late November – and turn out in March. However, he and discussion group members were concerned about the effects of clumps on spring grazing quality.
• Grass growth slowing.
• Graze residuals hard.
• Feed wedge less vital.