Improving grazing efficiency last year helped a Hampshire dairy unit make nearly twice as much excess grass into silage from the same acreage.
The extra grass could have been grazed by adding more cows to the system, says Jamie Butler of Whitewool Farm near Petersfield, but with high-yielding Holsteins and a tendency for dry summers, he’s glad to have the extra silage for winter TMR and summer buffer feeding.
“Silage isn’t a waste for us. More grass silage means less maize silage so it’s cheaper.
We filled our 400t clamp in 2004, but almost filled the 800t one last year,” says Mr Butler, whose mainly autumn-calving herd averages 8000 litres.
A decade ago, this 370-cow herd was intensively managed for high yields with three-times-a-day milking, full housing and access to loafing paddocks.
But Mr Butler realised costs were too high.
“So we cut the third milking, then went the other way to focus on grazing.
However, this was a wrong move because of the type of cow we had.
Now I’m trying to put together the best of both systems,” he explains.
“It’s cheaper to keep cows at grass in late lactation than indoors on bought-in feed.
Although we keep high yielders housed in early spring (January to March), once autumn calvers are back in-calf we turn them out as early as 3 March.”
The grazing season extends until mid-October, sometimes as late as early November depending on the season.
Despite the tendency for the farm to dry up in summer, Mr Butler still wanted to improve grazing practice.
“There wasn’t enough grass and although we had set up paddocks, we weren’t managing it properly.
Grass got away from us in spring, yet there wasn’t enough later in the year which meant we moved round paddocks more quickly and compounded the problem.”
Changing policy involved a computer spreadsheet – and a human with experience.
Mr Butler used the Rotationrite tool, developed in Australia and based on the 3-leaf grazing theory, and enlisted the help of Sussex milk producer Gwyn Jones, who has practised 3-leaf grazing for several years with his 700 cows.
“Gwyn really helped us to get the system right for our farm, visiting about once a month.
I understood the principles but he helped put it into practice.
I believe if you want to get better at something, you should choose someone doing it really well to help you.”
Three key areas Mr Butler changed were fertiliser policy, rotation planning and using topping as a management tool.
Instead of a blanket approach, fertilising the whole farm on a monthly basis with 50.2kg/ha (40 units/acre) of N, he switched to spreading nitrogen in individual paddocks within 2-3 days of cows leaving them.
“This allowed the maximum amount of time for grass to absorb nitrogen before the next grazing.
Previously, grass was fertilised at all different stages of growth, sometimes just before being grazed.”
The spreadsheet worked out rotations and helped him put together the growing and grazing theories.
Mr Butler believes growing grass is all about giving the plant long enough to grow to its maximum potential without letting it go too far for cows to leave it.
The spreadsheet ensures each paddock has the required number of days between grazing for optimum growth and usage.
“Grazing is all about using it properly:
Matching what’s out there with what the cow needs.
We worked this from how the fields were being grazed rather than mathematical formulae.
If you know how many grazings per paddock you need, and how many days you want to leave the paddock for the next grazing, it’s quite easy to work out how many acres to take out for silage.
For the spreadsheet minded, the Rotationrite tool does it for you.”
Topping was used as a management tool rather than seen as a failure of doing the job properly.
Any rejected patches of grass only become bigger at the next grazing round, says Mr Butler.
Topping these areas, however, sets a paddock up properly for grazing next time.
Having taken a season to establish a new policy, Mr Butler is confident he can repeat the exercise this summer and advises other producers struggling to implement change, to consider working with someone such as Mr Jones in a practical way.