Educated Holsteins get the most from forage

Dairy farmers contemplating a change in the way they manage their herd as a result of high feed costs, can learn a thing or two from the Lilburn family, Hillcrest Farm, Dromore.

When feed prices took a similar climb two years ago, father and son team, Beattie and Reggie Lilburn decided to put their all into maximising milk from forage and have since made some impressive changes.

High milk from forage is essential for profit, particularly considering feed is about £15-20/t more expensive in Northern Ireland than on the mainland, explains consultant Jason McMinn, FarmGate Nutrition.

“Maintaining yields while getting good milk from forage requires good grazing and top quality silage.”

In fact, getting the most from forage has helped the family achieve a cost of production that is an average three pence a litre lower than FarmGate Consultant’s client base, according to Beattie Lilburn.

The herd of 250 pedigree Holsteins are in the process of moving to autumn block calving from spring and autumn and are producing an average 8500 litres a cow a year from 2.5t of cake, with 3000 litres of milk from forage.

At peak time, cows are achieving 25 litres a cow a day from grazed grass, with some animals giving a total of 60 litres a day in late August.

Good fertility is the crux of this system, with the family working closely with the local vet to achieve top results, says Mr McMinn. “Any cows that slip outside the desired calving block are sold to help maintain the autumn block.”

And calving August through to Christmas allows cows to be calved inside, fed well, put back in calf and then let out in early spring to graze hard throughout the grazing season, he says.

By putting that little bit more effort into grass management, the Lilburns are able to start grazing cows in March – a whole month earlier than most Northern Irish farmers.

Educating cows

According to Beattie Lilburn, educating cows and getting them out early is key to grazing efficiency. “By putting cows out early, they learn to graze tighter because they are working with short, leafy grass and want to graze.

“Milk does suffer a bit early in the season, but this slight drop in production is worth it in the long-run in terms of grass production.”

Cows need to be taught how to graze from a young age, he says. “Part of the problem on a lot of farms is the fact they turn out young stock, which are used to being inside, and expect them to graze.” To overcome this problem, all stock go out to grass from three months of age.

The difference is making sure cows want to graze, rather than have to graze, stresses Gareth Anderson, consultant for FarmGate Nutrition.

And although buffering high yielding cows is a must on this system, ensuring cows are not too full when they go out to grass goes a long way to increasing grass intakes.

High and low yielders are currently grazed as one group during the day and then split off through a sorting gate after afternoon milking. Lows then return to grass and highs remain inside at night to be buffer fed a TMR.

The TMR is made up of grass silage, maize, home rolled barley and a balancer blend. Cows receive a total of 21.5 kg dry matter a cow a day through grazed grass and buffer, but are also topped up to yield in the parlour, bringing total dry matter intakes to 25-26kg a head a day.

Dry matter intakes

“Achieving high dry matter intakes comes from good transition management,” says Mr Anderson.

“All dry cows are bought in three weeks prior to calving and fed on a TMR of grass silage, maize, straw and a balancer blend. Our target DMI is 11.5-12kg a head a day, but cows are actually achieving 13kg.

“These high intakes close to calving are strongly linked to maintained intakes in fresh cows.”

And flexible feeding in the parlour is all part of maintaining yields at grass, he says.

“When ground is wet, it is worth putting up intakes in the parlour and moving maintenance levels so yields are not hit.” Equally with low yielders, intakes should be monitored so stock are not fed too much and put off grazing.

By re seeding leys every five years, cows are provided with the best quality grass to encourage intakes. Strategic slurry treatment via trailing shoe and one-off sodium application to grazing ground has also improved sward density and palatability. All this helps the family achieve grazing residuals of 1000kg DM/ha.

Buying a drum mower has also proved one of our best investments, says Reggie Lilburn. “This doubles as a silage mower and topper, with all fields topped after grazing from June onwards. This cleans off dung patches and encourages quality re-growth.”

Cows may go in at 2500 kg DM/ha, but it is pure leaf due to the quality of the cut, says Beattie Lilburn. And by cutting their own grass silage, the Lilburns also ensure total control over silage quality.

Forage quality

The aim is to cut early to produce young, leafy silage, says Mr McMinn. “Without this it is impossible to keep concentrate feed-rates down.”

Rapid wilt and getting the crop in the clamp as quickly as possible is key to producing top quality silage, says Reggie Lilburn.

“When conditions are right, a 12 hour wilt is best, aiming for an ideal dry matter of 28.7%.”

Producing home grown forage is an important part of keeping costs down, but crop performance is under constant review to ensure optimum efficiency. “Maize is an important part of the ration, but because we have to grow the crop under plastic, it is expensive, so we must produce a high quality crop.” Maize ground is soil sampled every year to ensure good use of fertilisers, and yields monitored.


But getting the most from forage all comes down to breeding the right type of Holstein, says Beattie Lilburn.

“A lot of my Holstein mates think we’re mad grazing cows in April, but the key is selecting the right bull. We aim for a medium sized cow with strength and good legs and feet, while still using high type bulls.

“Most Holstein producers think they can’t graze, but many put stock out once and give up when it doesn’t go to plan – it’s essential animals are educated from the start of the year. You can’t change to this system over night, but once you have it set up, it is so simple.”