Cows at East Lydeard Farm, west Somerset, will start calving at the end of February in a seriously fit condition, according to owner Tom Morris, who has out-wintered his organic herd for the past four years.
He instigated the out-wintering system to reduce the cost of housing his 190 New Zealand Friesian crosses through the winter.
He has grazed the farm extensively, so the change was not a major one but the benefits were, he believes.
“It immediately saved us the cost of cleaning and bedding and there was no hauling of silage.”
He uses a 28ha (70 acre) block of silage ground, which means there is no impact on spring covers in the grazing block.
Neither does it affect the silage crop because his first cut is not harvested until the end of June.
The herd’s main diet is big bale silage, which is left standing in the field after baling.
“Bales are wrapped and left exactly where they come out of the baler, it removes the need to handle or transport them,” says Mr Morris.
“I think this works best on an extensive system.
We don’t put on any fertiliser so we get fewer bales to the acre, which is what we want.
The more area you have for the cows the better.”
About two thirds of the herd is on the block at any one time.
In-calf heifers and cows not in the necessary condition are housed.
“A three-quarter acre block of fresh grass is fenced off for cows every 24 hours, which includes five, six-stringed, bales, double-stacked.
“Wrapping is removed and taken away and I take two strings out of the bales, leaving four behind to keep silage together.
I just pick up the string when I feed the next day,” says Mr Morris.
He runs a drill over areas where bales stand every year to revive the leys.
The system, he says, is not only cost-efficient but has major benefits to herd health.
“Cows in their dry period are exceptionally fit because they are roaming on land 270m above sea level.
When they come off the hill they are fit for calving.
We have had very few calving problems since we started out-wintering.
It’s not just their condition but their muscle tone too.”
Limited housing was also an issue for Pembrokeshire producer Lyn Jenkins when he out-wintered heifers for the first time last year.
Although he had enough housing for 140 cows, the shed he rented for youngstock was no longer available.
“Out-wintering was an experiment, I saw it working on another farm but didn’t know if it would work for me,” admits Mr Jenkins, of New House Farm, Haverfordwest.
He experimented with 26 February-born heifers, grazing 11ha (26 acres) over a four-month rotation.
They thrived, gaining an average of 80kg over 120 days.
Following this success, Mr Jenkins plans to do the same this winter.
He believes the system is particularly suited to a block calving herd.
“Our heifers were born within three weeks of each other.
They were all the same size so we could treat them as one group,” says Mr Jenkins.
Heifers grazed land away from the dairy to protect spring covers.
These were the wettest fields on the farm that are not accessible by cows but, even during a particularly wet period, the stock did not poach the fields.
“Some days there was water running through the field.
When it was that wet I just shifted them to a new block every 12 hours instead of 24,” Mr Jenkins explains.
The system works for him because he de-stocks in the autumn.
He currently has 52 heifers but is selling 24, leaving him with 28 for out-wintering.
The only downside to the system is that heifers need to be trained to use the cubicles when they are in-calf.
So he plans to bring in-calf heifers in on 1 November and mix them with the cows.
His soil is a medium loam, while Mr Morris’ land at East Lydeard is slatey and free draining.
Soil type and aspect are important.
“The winter block is an exposed site, which means there is a drying effect all the time.
If it was enclosed it wouldn’t dry out and fields could get wet,” says Mr Morris.