8 August 1997

Sold on NZ technique

Emphasis on grass is helping one Welsh milk producer maintain margins despite a falling milk price. Robert Davies reports

WELSHMAN Richard John is convinced the New Zealand system of maximising milk production from grazed grass is applicable in Pembrokeshire.

Ten years ago his Chapel Holstein-Friesians were milked three times a day, and averaged 7300 litres/cow from 2t of cake/head. The system began to change when he decided that yield and profit were not connected, and that margins would rise if more home grown feed was used.

Contact with New Zealand and Irish grassland consultants over the last two years introduced him to grass measurement and grass budgeting, and accelerated the evolution.

Last year Chapel Hill Farm herd average yield was 6400 litres, of which 4700 litres was from forage, including 12.4t of silage/cow. The next stage, involving the reduction of dependence on conserved grass, is already under way.

"I was always a fairly good grass manager, but was working blindly," says Mr John, who runs 140 milkers on 91ha (225 acres) at Templeton near Narberth.

"When the British Grassland Society brought Mark Blackwell to the UK last year he showed how I could make better use of grass, and grazed grass in particular."

The herd is being converted from autumn to spring calving, and 100 cows will calve from February 1 next year, or four weeks before target turnout date. In fact Mr John expects the herd to be at grass even sooner.

"Like all British farmers I am pessimistic about the weather, and assume it will not be possible to utilise grazing early.

But New Zealand consultants have encouraged me to take an optimistic view, and believe that it will be possible to extend the grazing season."

The plan is to continue grazing until November, which should allow the cows to eat 3.5-4t of grazed grass dry matter, or around 65% of their total requirement. This reduces the tonnage of silage needed to 7t/cow or less, and this season the contracting bill has been cut by £3686 to £5440.

Because grass growth is better monitored than in the past, and forward budgeting of supplies is routine, fertiliser applications are dictated by the projected supply position, rather than the calendar.

This season the residual benefits of two previous mild seasons, and fairly heavy spring dressings, were cashed in by not applying fertiliser from mid-May until mid-July. The 30t of compound saved would have cost £3600.

Wild fluctuations in average grass cover over the whole farm are being stabilised by earlier turnout, resisting the urge to make large quantities of silage, and grass budgeting. Spring calving will ensure that supplies match stage of lactation, so grazed grass will be the mainstay of milk production.

"I am returning to the system used by my father 30 years ago. But, as with all farming cycles, I have access to much more knowledge and technology to do the job better. The system will not be completely right until access is improved. I would like to install cow tracks, but with around three miles to do they are too expensive, so other methods have to be used."

Currently the rolling herd margins are £1414/cow and 22.09p/litre. Mr John acknowledges that the squeeze on milk price will make it difficult to maintain these figures. But he believes that he has a better chance than he would on the treadmill of chasing high yields with costly concentrates.

Mr John is also using New Zealand genetics to breed cows that can cope with huge quantities of grass, and the stresses of an extended grazing season. "My ideal sire is a high genetic merit bull tested under a grazing system, and that is what I get from New Zealand."

Richard John: Driven by lower milk prices to add precision to grassland management. He is seeking the advice of NZ consultant Paul Bird (inset).

GRAZINGPROGRESS

&#8226 More grazed grass.

&#8226 Less silage made.

&#8226 Reduced fertiliser use.