Out-wintering yearlings on grassland set aside in August for winter grazing is resulting in savings of £71/head for one dairy farming partnership.
The Jenkins family conserves 90ha of off-lying land from mid-August to build covers for grazing 110 spring-born calves in the winter.
A dressing of 50kgs/ha of nitrogen is spread on the land at the beginning of September and the calves turned into the first paddock two weeks later.
The fields are divided into 0.3ha blocks with electric fencing and the heifers are given a fresh paddock every day. As the winter progresses and they get heavier the paddock size increases to 0.45ha, usually around the beginning of February.
The heifers are British Friesians and New Zealand Friesians and they thrive on this system, says Eurig Jenkins, who farms in partnership with his father, Aeron, in Ceredigion. “We don’t weigh the heifers, but they grow really well on grass, they are a good size when they are put in calf,” he says.
It was necessity not choice that prompted the Jenkins’ to out-winter. They were expanding their spring-calving dairy herd at Pentrefelin, Talsarn, from 140 seven years ago to 330 cows this year, and didn’t have the sheds to house additional stock in the winter. “We had to find a way of keeping the youngstock outside through the winter,” says Eurig.
The establishment costs were minimal. The Jenkins’ were already renting the land as silage ground, but instead of taking a third cut, that grass was locked up for grazing. There was a one-off investment of £1000 in electric fencing.
The fields are divided into square grazing blocks instead of rectangular paddocks because the cattle don’t need to walk as much to graze it thoroughly and are more settled in a square paddock. There is therefore less damage to the grass.
Another point that Eurig sees as crucial to the system is moving the calves into a fresh paddock before daybreak, whatever the weather conditions. “The calves get unsettled when it gets light because they want to eat and can quickly damage a paddock if they don’t have fresh grazing,” he says.
“It’s not rocket science working out how much grass to allocate them – if they are lying down at 11am they have had enough grass.”
His brother, Elfed, who works off-farm, is in charge of setting up the paddocks and moves the fences before he goes to work. All the paddocks are set up in a single field before the stock are moved into it. “You have to know where you are going to be on the fourth or fifth day – planning is important,” says Eurig.
Even in very wet conditions poaching has been minimal because of the system in place, but there has been some frost damage to the grass during the recent extreme cold weather. The only supplementary feed has been hay fed during the snow.
Aeron believes the breed is ideally suited to the system. “It wouldn’t be possible to run Holsteins on it – it’s horses for courses. If you have the right type of animal it’s going to work,” he says. “We get about 1750mm of rainfall a year, but the system still works.”
Although some of the land was re-seeded when the Jenkins took it on three years ago, there has been no re-seeding since. The leys are predominately long term, late heading perennial ryegrass.
The calves are moved off the winter grazing block on 20 April to enable covers to be built up for first cut silage.
Although the family started out-wintering out of necessity it has worked so well that even if they now had a choice between winter housing or grazing they would choose grazing.
The costs stack up too. They calculate they are saving £71/head. Based on an annual rent of £250/ha and a winter rent of £90/ha the cost of rent a calf is £41.50. Per head fertiliser accounts for £15.50, labour £10, a quad bike £6 and electric fences £2. The calves do need to be dosed every six weeks for worms and fluke and they are dosed twice with Copper/Iodine trace element boluses. This adds £15/head to the costs a head.
Based on these costs, the Jenkins calculate that out-wintering 110 calves costs £9900 compared to £17,710 for winter housed stock, assuming a cost of £7 a week for 150 days.
“It’s a big saving and it’s not a compromise, winter grazing really work for us,” says Eurig.