Grassland management and fertility are the two key drivers that unlock profits for Cheshire-based Bill Cuthbert. As herdsman for Peter Willis at Mouldsworth, Chester, they aim for an empty rate of less than 10% while grazing for 10 months of the year.
“Key for us is getting our fertility spot on. We do everything we can to ensure they conceive and hold on to their calves.”
He aims for a tight calving block of 10 weeks for the 325 organic milking cows. This loads even more emphasis on getting management right at turnout. “With our vet, Ben Pedley of The Willows Vet Group, we’ve developed a herd health plan, based on a holistic approach – we try to prevent problems rather than treat them.”
Leptospirosis is a concern at turnout. Three to four weeks before serving begins, cows and heifers receive their booster dose of vaccine. “This gives them plenty of time to overcome stress before mating,” says Mr Cuthbert.
At the same time, the first-born calves get their first dose. The second comes four weeks later. “They then just get a booster injection annually after this and they’re covered for the rest of their lives,” he explains.
BVD is another massive threat to fertility. “We want cows producing a healthy, viable calf. As well as having an effect on fertility, BVD suppresses the immune system and can affect diseases such as mastitis in milking cows and pneumonia in calves.” Cows are vaccinated at drying off around Christmas. This ensures the cow is well protected before serving begins.
Mr Cuthbert takes care to keep calves in separate groups until they have received both doses of their leptospirosis vaccine. This ensures herd health is maintained while the animals are still vulnerable.
Gut worms and lungworm are a key priority at turnout, particularly for calves, so they are vaccinated before turnout for lungworm to allow control of this important parasite. Running an organic herd, control for gut worms is down to good pasture management, says Mr Cuthbert.
“We expose calves to some level of worm burden, to help them build immunity. But clean pasture is the best way forward – again it’s prevention rather than cure.”
This means choosing parts of the main grazing platform that have been free of cows the longest. A harsh winter is also useful for reducing the worm burden.
This policy is not an easy one to maintain when cows are out at grass for up to 10 months of the year. The grassland is managed along a New Zealand-type system, with turnout this year taking place on 31 January.
“Our transition is related to grass availability and ground conditions. At first, the milkers are let out for just a couple of hours a day. We keep it flexible enough to keep them inside when grass stops growing or conditions deteriorate.”
This flexibility is maintained throughout the farm’s approach to nutrition at turnout, which has herd health benefits. “Our priority is to manage the transition without compromising the energy of a cow or its self-healing process.”
So from the diet of straw and silage as the cows dry off in November, cake is gradually introduced as calving approaches. Cows are grouped according to when they are due to calve to help manage feed intake. As they calve down, cake is stepped up and grazing time outside introduced.
“We keep a close eye on ground conditions and grass quality, and also look for warning signs from the cows. Our aim is to maintain that energy balance and present cows with consistent body condition that are clean and ready to be served at the end of April.”
The grassland itself is managed to a level that will maintain a steady 6000-6200 litres a cow a year across the herd, on less than 1t of concentrate an animal. “I walk the farm every week and measure grass growth with a plate meter so I know exactly what we have to play with.”
The aim is to offer cows a fresh block of grass every 12 hours. Cows are introduced when paddocks are at 2800kg/ha DM and graze to a residual of 1500-1700kg/ha DM. This is worked out quite meticulously by how many cows are in the group, their dry matter intake and how much of a feed wedge there is to present from the pasture.
The sward is clover-based and slot injected with slurry as soon as the cows leave the pasture. Silage may be taken from fields that exceed the 2800kg/ha DM optimum for grazing.
“The system isn’t for everyone, but it works for us and it’s flexible,” says Mr Cuthbert. “Getting the cows back in calf is probably our highest priority. Our best chance is having them in optimum condition and at the same time providing the highest-quality grass during the breeding season”