HOUSEBOUND HERDS ALLOW TOTAL CONTROL
ALTERNATIVE TO A GRAZING NIGHTMARE
STAYING INDOORS AT THE SEASIDE
A herd in sunny Sussex and another in grassy Devon have effectively turned their backs on grazed grass. Peter Grimshaw asks why they have opted for year-round housing and will not be celebrating turn-out time this season
"THERES no mystery about it. Housing cows just suits us." But, says Richard Ashworth, of Fairlight Place Farm, Hastings, Sussex, it is not a management system that he would recommend to all milk producers.
"I am certainly not going to pretend that this is the way forward for everybody. It depends on the circumstances," he says.
The circumstances at Fairlight Place are in some ways typical of many farms in the area – free-draining sandstone and scant summer rain. That means grass quality and quantity tend to fall off from early June. But Mr Ashworth has found that the farm grows maize well.
With a herd average exceeding 10,000 litres, it is essential to meet the cows dry matter intake needs every day and to balance the energy consumption/production equation. This Mr Ashworth feels he can do best with a consistent, all-year-round ration based on grass and maize silages.
He believes dairy farmers in the UK suffer from what he terms two-tier management.
"Winter management and nutrition are generally fairly good. But as soon as spring comes the gates are opened, the cows go out and from then on they are out of control."
He is even prepared to quantify it: "On average, herds are managed in winter to about 8000 litres potential. In summer it slips as low as 4000 litres. That puts a serious limit on the potential performance a cow."
On his own farm he says there is a small element of grazing in the spring. But the grass is barely allowed for in the rations the herd continues to receive.
"The lower yielders might benefit a little. But with higher yielders it is difficult to balance the energy equation off grass, especially because it is hard to get enough dry matter into them."
He says that, after a brief period in early spring, the quality of grazed grass is beginning to tail off significantly by early June.
What makes the farm unusual is its location. As part of Hastings Country Park it has a cliff-top view across the English Channel. That makes it a Mecca for thousands of holidaymakers and day-trippers, who come all year round to the mile-and-a-half of beaches along its southern boundary. Mr Ashworth reckons there is an average of three public footpaths in every field and, he says, cows and tourists do not generally mix.
"You cannot just allow cows to wander out back to their pasture through electric fences after milking." Also, because the farm shape is long and narrow, running along the cliff edge, field access is not convenient.
Regardless of the people problem, he believes that a herd average yield exceeding 10,000 litres brings into question how much cow time and energy can be expended on grazing.
"We have to question the energy wasted by a long walk to pasture," he says. "We find it is easier to grow maize for the cows and feed it to them rather than have them walk half a mile to their grazing."
As far as he is concerned total housing is simply logical, but he admits it is largely a matter of his gut feeling about what is right for the farm and what isnt. He concedes that it is hard to put a value, or a cost, on the system beyond the logic of using buildings and equipment all the year round.
"We have spent the money. We have the mixer wagon, the loader, straw-bedded yards, slurry system and other equipment. Why not use it for 12 months instead of six?"
While many herd managers rejoice at the end of the winter chores, Mr Ashworth believes summer housing actually makes things easier. In particular, he likes to have the herd ready and waiting at 5.30am of a summer morning, rather than waking up to the knowledge that they are a long, slow hike away.
Extra work is minimal, consisting only of scraping round, bedding up and preparing the feed.
Like most permanently housed herds the Fairlight cows do go out in summer, although never at night. But it is more for exercise and a bit of fresh air than to feed. On miserable days they stay in. And in really hot weather they appear to be far happier in a cool, quiet shed than in a baking field with swarms of flies. "Last summer my cows did not go out, even when they were able to, on blazing hot days."
He is not sure that they would really choose to take exercise and cannot lay down any guidelines for the minimum area required.
Housing consists of open-fronted yards and straw bedding. In winter the cows enjoy the warmth this generates. In summer the yards are cleared frequently because a steaming manure mattress is less to their taste and, given the chance, some cows prefer to lie on cool, if mucky, concrete.
"We find we really need to clean out about once a month," he says.
Straw is no problem in a predominantly arable area, although he admits it would be unthinkable in areas such as the West Country. The muck is positively welcome for the organic matter benefits it brings to an inherently hungry soil type. It all goes on to the land used to grow maize.
Housing all year appears to Mr Ashworth to present few problems with lameness, general health, fertility or longevity. "I really cannot think of any health problems that result from it," he says.
THE 350-cow Coldridge herd of pedigree Holstein Friesians is owned by Dinah Beer and her sons David and Nicholas at Hawkridge Farm, Coldridge, Crediton, Devon. Although it is a good grass growing area, only the lowest yielders rely significantly on grazing.
The farms 202ha (500 acres) is strung across two miles of broken countryside, laced by rivers, woodland and steep banks, not to mention narrow Devon lanes. Only about 40ha (100 acres) is within decent grazing distance of the 22-point Trigon milking parlour.
Last years September to September yield was 8200kg a head of milk at 3.9% fat and 3.28% protein. Currently the herd is in line to average 9000kg at 3.8% fat and 3.4% protein. To the end of February 1996 the margin over concentrates was £1657 but that is on target to increase to £1800 in the next few months.
The Beers have been milking three times a day at Hawkridge for over 40 years. The family believes this has contributed to the herds successful performance. A three-times-daily milking regime almost dictates at least one housed period each day, whatever the season.
May and June are the months when grazing is most important. After that summer calvings start and an increasing proportion of the herd gets most food indoors.
There are three different herds. Low and medium yielders may graze twice a day and are buffer fed overnight. High yielders are turned out only once a day.
Even in a region reputed for grass growth banks rapidly dry out and longer spells without rain have occurred several times in recent years. In last summers drought total mixed ration was fed outside, with the cows only going out for a sit down in the sun.
"No point in wasting energy that could go into milk," says herd manager Brian Brumby.
Adjustments to the seasonal scale of milk prices to favour summer production added a further twist to the problem, although the trend is now back to all-year-round calving. It encouraged more milk production at Hawkridge in July and August, the time when grass quality and quantity have proved so unpredictable in recent years.
Although the thinking behind a fully housed regime owes much to rainfall, farm topography and milking interval, the herds nutrition and its developing genetic potential are increasingly important factors. Even in grassy Devon grazing is frequently inadequate for the demands of high yielding cows.
"The yield always dropped in May, when we turned them out," says Mrs Beer. And she has no regrets about seeing fewer cows grazing. "I like to see cows looking well and yielding to full potential."
She gives Mr Brumby much credit for making the system work. He has been to see how things are done in North America and Canada and as far as he is concerned grazed grass is a nightmare.
In this he is joined by ADAS senior dairy consultant in mid-Devon, Chris Laycock, who believes grass is a very variable commodity. "If you are going down the high yield route it is dangerous to rely on it." Mr Laycock sees more and more high yield potential herds moving to a mainly housed system.
Mrs Beer takes a keen interest in the genetics of her herd and enjoys considerable success in the show ring. High PIN bulls are used throughout. The herds reputation has been reflected in keen bidding at its 22 annual sales of freshly calved heifers. With the move back to all-year-round milking, calves and heifers are available for sale at most times.
As well as Mr Brumby there are two herdsmen and a tractor driver, backed up by relief milkers, who do the night shift.
Comments Mrs Beer: "As far as the milking goes I think we could not do it better. It really has worked well." The Beers were among the first in Britain to adopt TMR feeding. This came partly from the introduction of forage maize to supplement the farms grass.
The basic ration is 40% grass silage, 60% maize silage and brewers grains plus a premix containing soya, maize distillers grain, cottonseed, rapeseed and fishmeal. Caustic-treated wheat and some molassed beet pulp is added to boost energy.
The high yielding group is fed for 42 litres a day, medium range cows get food for 35 litres and rationing is restricted to 28 litres for the tail-enders.
Progressively less concentrate is fed in the parlour. Stepped feeding has brought individual cows ability to realise genetic potential sharply into focus.
Chris Laycock explains that this can be a big advantage of TMR. "All too often concentrate feeding in the parlour masks individual animals true potential for milk production from forage," he claims.
Mr Brumby agrees. "Our January-calving, high yielding group all received the same ration, yet were yielding anything between 35 and 62 litres a day. The ration and everything else was the same. The difference, apart from obvious problems such as producing twins, can only be genetic. That allows us to cull the tail-enders heavily."
When more reliance is placed on highly variable grazing it is harder to make a proper assessment of individual animal performance. Fluctuations in yield caused by variability in grazing can confuse the picture. Nutritional stability when cows are housed facilitates genetic improvement.
Summer housing means bedding costs are higher and there is obviously more slurry to load and cart away. It is used on the forage maize ground in spring, while summer accumulations go on autumn reseeds. There is also more wear and tear on machinery both to handle muck and to make the extra silage demanded by the system.
Herd health is good. Feet appear to present no difficulties – Brian Brumby believes there are fewer foot ailments with housed herds in winter than with cows grazing in summer.
Housing the cows for more of their lives appears to have benefited fertility and longevity. Some cows are in their 10th lactation. *
FARM FACTS Fairlight Place Farm
Farm size: 113ha (280 acres).
Stocking: 110 high merit Holstein Friesians plus followers.
Performance:10,000 litres a cow on twice-a-day milking.
Calving: April to November.
Labour: Farmer and one worker.
Rainfall: 700-736mm (27-29in).
Access: Major public access to land.
Housing: Mainly year-round in straw yards.
Feeding: 70% forage maize, 30% grass silage, TMR fed. Just under 3t concentrates a cow a year.
Farm size: 202ha (500 acres).
Stocking: 350 high merit Holstein Friesians.
Performance: 9000 litres a cow from three-times-a day milking.
Calving: Mainly summer, moving to all year round.
Labour: Herd manager, two dairymen, tractor driver and relief milkers.
Rainfall: 1000mm (39in).
Access: Poor access to pasture, linked to herd and farm size.
Housing: Cubicle, bedded with straw and sawdust.
Ration: Based on 60% forage maize, 40% grass silage, brewers grains. TMR fed to give 24-hour access.
3t concentrates a cow a year.
It is a 365 days-a-year job to feed the cows at Fairlight Place Farm. But Richard Ashworth and stockman Ken Colvin prefer it to the hassle caused by grazing. They say it is much easier than moving cows about.
Richard Ashworth believes his cows prefer an idle life, with meals on wheels and no long hike to grass.
Coldridge herd manager Brian Brumby (left) assesses maize silage quality with Chris Laycock, ADAS. This forage provides 60% of the diet.
Left: Difficult terrain and easily damaged pasture favour housing for the Coldridge herd. Right: The cows are content in their large, airy cubicle shed.