Grass burn-off in the summer months is something herdsman Ian Fermor, of Buddington Farm, Midhurst, has always had to live with. But this year saw the problem arise in June, a month earlier than expected.
To make the situation more challenging, the 126-cow dairy herd is managed to minimise the time cows are housed, while maintaining high yields of 9500 litres a cow a year.
“Our strategy of keeping cows out as long as we can is only possible because we are on free-draining sandy ground,” says Mr Fermor. “However, this comes with the added risk of grass burn-off during hot months.”
By mid-April, cows are out on grass day and night. “In July we usually have to buffer feed at night as the grass begins to suffer, but this year we have had to do so for a few weeks in June.”
The buffer consists of maize and grass silage, crimped maize and a bespoke blend.
When cows are buffered, they are allowed to run back and forth from an adjacent paddock to access the ration on an outside feeding pad by the buildings.
“The danger comes if it doesn’t rain after first cut.” But because the dairy unit is run alongside an arable enterprise, there is the option of irrigation. “We can use the irrigation system set up for the potato crop, but we cannot rely on it.”
This year, 20ha of a 45ha grazing platform have been irrigated. “The key is to make use of the grass as best we can, as it comes and goes so quickly.”
In response to this “risk period”, Mr Fermor has started to change the calving pattern. “We calve all year round, but I have begun to change the system so there are more cows dry in June and July.”
Increasing yields have also added another dimension to managing cows at grass. “Performance has gradually increased, as we have crossed Friesians with Holstein. Next year we expect to be up to 10,000 litres a cow.”
As a result, it is essential feed intakes are maintained to meet yield demands. “As soon as we see cows are not full we switch to a night ration.”
“We can’t split the herd into groups because of the buildings, so we have to manage as best we can in one group.”
To ensure these demands on yield are met, the farm works closely with independent consultant, Nick Beard to formulate rations and budgets.
“We work on intakes of 14kg DM a cow a day,” he says. “But, because grass burn off is always a possibility, we preserve an extra 15% a cow of forage as an insurance policy.”
The key is to listen and react to what cows are telling you, says Mr Fermor. “If cows are standing under a tree and not eating grass, it is time to introduce the buffer. There is no point in sacrificing yield and cow health.
“Quite a few cows are milking well in June, so it is essential we prevent any milk drop.” Luckily, a food shortage has rarely been a problem.
Fortunately, there is always a plentiful forage supply, says Mr Beard. “The advantage at this farm is the ability to crimp maize and ag bag it. There is also a large clamp of maize on a secondary farm.”
But this year’s hot weather has meant they have not been able to take a full second cut. Despite this, feed should not be a problem.
When it is exceptionally hot, cows are given access to cubicle housing to get out of the heat, but, generally, cows are kept outside as much as possible, says Mr Fermor.
“I believe keeping cows out, heightens animal welfare; if I was a cow, I’d prefer to be outside.”
This attitude is carried over into the winter. “We usually only have cows in for five weeks in winter. This reduces pressures on labour and improves cow welfare.”
Because the farm is on sandy ground, cows are grazed on Kale during the winter months. “When there is light rain, It only takes a few hours to dry the surface on the Kale ground. When it is really wet we do bring cows in for a couple of days,” he says.