SET STOCKING TOPS THE AGENDA HERE…
Set stocking is not a favoured system for many dairy herds wanting to utilise grass, but it
works extremely well for one Buckinghamshire producer. Simon Wragg reports
ONLY 40% of forage grown was being used efficiently when the Grassland Research Institute (GRI) visited Briarhill Farm, Buckingham, in 1981. The calculation took into account maintenance for the 120-cow herd, liveweight gain and milk production.
Today, Charles Hodges, who farms the 85ha (212 acre) unit with his wife Eleanor, brother Stuart and sister-in-law Linda would argue that figure has increased dramatically. "Our aim is to graze for output an acre, not a cow," he says.
The turn-around came with the introduction of quota in 1984. A disappointing allocation ended plans to expand the herd, so concentrate use was curtailed and a focus put on maximising use of grazed grass.
It is fortunate, says Mr Hodges, that about 73ha (180 acres) of the low lying loam over clay land had been under-drained in the early 80s and many fields had been resown to boost grass productivity.
"Since quotas were introduced costs have been kept down and very little reseeding has been done."
Grassland is set-stocked – but not because it is poor quality, adds Mr Hodges. Swards may be 20 years old, but they are very productive. "Little of the original mix remains. Perennial ryegrass, some Timothy and natural clover can be picked out."
What has evolved is a proud, dense, narrow-leafed sward with a high number of tillers, he says, favouring grasses that thrive under tight grazing and limited nitrogen applications – the farm is in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone.
Realising the potential of grass has seen forage-sourced utilised metabolisable energy at Briarhill almost double since the GRI visit. "The management of grassland has improved. It was not that good back then, but it has got better."
Axient milkminder figures show how committed to forage the unit is. Yields average 5131 litres with 4242 litres coming from forage. Concentrate use is 0.12t/cow. From a milk price of 21.5ppl, a MOPF of 20.4ppl is achieved. Net margin is approximately 12ppl.
The grass year starts with the overwintering of sheep through to late January. All areas are grazed down to a sward height of 4cm (1.75in) in winter.
"Thereafter, fields are pegged out to ensure artificial fertiliser is applied evenly. Slurry is spread on drier areas in early spring – analysis showing 3000gal/acre is equivalent to 17.5kg/acre N. Separated muck is also applied. No additional P and K is needed."
As soon as grass height has reached 7cm (2.85in) cows are turned out – usually mid-March. High stocking rates of 10 cows/ha (four cows/acre) are common. "At 7cm, there is enough grass to provide maintenance plus 17 litres," suggests Mr Hodges.
Cows have access to cubicles and are buffer fed silage if necessary even after turnout. "It is a low stress system. The cows can do exactly what they want.
"If the sward height falls below 7cm another field will be opened up. There is no grazing and silage area as such – it is treated as one 185-acre grazing unit."
Monitoring and recording grass growth helps keep tabs on what area of silage is likely to be available. "I have used a plate meter but found it to have limitations, particularly in poached fields, so I tend to use my sward stick to monitor growth," says Mr Hodges.
Should grass growth recede, the New Zealand approach is taken. "If intakes and therefore milk yields are falling, I do not push concentrates at the cows to compensate. I do what BGS consultant Paul Bird would do – adjust the area grazed."
Not all NZ practices find favour at Briarhill. "There is an argument for grazing paddock-style, but I do not like barbed wire or electric fences. And it would incur extra costs because we do not have the materials or enough equipment for it."
However, an electric fence is used to control early access and limit wastage in larger fields brought into the grazing area. The philosophy remains that grass is there as a crop to be grazed, not to be walked on.
The same level of attention is paid to the timing of first cut silage, says Mr Hodges. Having monitored grass growth throughout the year, first cut it taken before the middle of May in the fortnight of maximum growth.
"The recovery we see in the next three weeks can be similar to six weeks growth elsewhere.
"And we do not wilt unless we can guarantee good weather as I cannot convince myself that it works. And anything that stops silaging for 24 hours is not a tenable proposition. If we leave it to wilt for a day, that is a days growth lost," says Hr Hodges.
Unorthodox to some, but the system works. Silage goes into one of five outdoor clamps at 20% DM. Typical analysis is ME 11.5, D-value in the high 70s and a crude protein of 18-20%.
However, the Hodges acknowledge that there is still room for improvement.
If the herds genetic base improves, sward height will have to increase to bolster forage intakes. Paddock grazing could, therefore, help in the management of grazing areas, but it would be a reluctant move.
In Mr Hodges own mind, those practices are the preserve of dairy farmers and he admits instead to being a forage enthusiast. With milk margins getting tighter, the simpler and cheaper a system is the more viable, he believes. *
• Graze tightly in spring.
• Maintain grass sward height at 7cm-9cm.
• Be flexible with grazing areas.
No grazing and silage area as such at Briarhill Farm – just one 185 acre
grazing unit, says Charles Hodges.