Build grass swards now for overwintering heifers

Dairy farmers should budget now to build up a bank of grass for outwintering livestock this autumn.

Dairy Co’s research and development manager Debbie McConnell says now is the ideal time for dairy producers to start considering which fields should be set aside for winter grazing heifers.

“Outwintering can be quite harsh on fields. Select dry, free-draining fields to avoid poaching and damage to swards,” she advises.

Dairy producers should consider using older swards that they are planning to reseed in the spring to avoid damaging new leys and shouldn’t risk grazing pastures close to farm buildings that will be used early next year.

Outwintering offers savings in capital costs, but for economic value to be achieved heifers must grow adequately.

Dr McConnell says producers should set clear liveweight targets to ensure maturity is reached at both bulling and calving.

“At calving at 24 months you want a heifer to be 90% of her mature weight.”

For a Holstein Friesian heifer to achieve this target it requires a daily liveweight gain of about 0.7-0.8kg a day, she adds.

To safeguard performance at grass, producers should monitor growth regularly.

Dr McConnell says farmers should also analyse grass to check the quality before turnout and be prepared for cold weather where energy requirements are likely to be higher.

Forage reserves can then be bought in advance to make up energy deficits, she adds.

Herd expansion without accommodation costs

Dairy farmer Robert Thornhill out-winters a surplus of 70 in-calf heifers and dry cows at his farm in Great Longstone, near Bakewell.

The business is heavily focused on profit and animal welfare and outwintering has enabled Mr Thornhill to expand the herd and maximise returns without investing in additional winter accommodation.

“We had grown the herd beyond our housing capacity,” explains Mr Thornhill.

Stock is out-wintered on about 3ha from November to February and stay out once they’ve calved in the spring.

In preparation for outwintering grass growth is monitored weekly during the growing season and the area is shut up in August to allow for adequate regrowth, with a pre-graze target of about 3,500kg of DM a day.

In September, while the ground is still dry, rows of silage bales are put into the field along with ring feeders.

Once outwintering starts the cows then receive four bales and fresh grass in a paddock.

Electric fencing is then moved every other day to provide the animals with a new strip of grass and four fresh bales daily.

As the same area is used for outwintering each year, Mr Thornhill reseeds the 3ha annually to repair the damage caused to swards.

Mr Thornhill says the benefits have been substantial.

“You don’t have to enter the field with any machinery. When the winter is over it is easy to reseed.

“It requires minimal labour, because there is no bedding down or mucking out.”


More on this topic

Read further about out-wintering