Grass management reduces costs

Milk produced from grass is the cheapest form of production, but too few farmers take a proactive approach to managing their pasture, according to DairyCo extension officer Piers Badnell.

“Farmers are aware of the huge potential from grass in terms of nutrition, milk production and profits, but knowing what targets to aim for in terms of energy and protein, is not as easy. A little extra time spent measuring growth rates and testing for dry matter, energy and protein content can boost margins by as much as 1.8p/litre,” he says.

To show farmers what’s possible Mr Badnell has set up the Grass and Grazing Analysis Project. The project measures grass energy and protein levels fortnightly and growth rates weekly on eight farms across the UK, with results posted on the DairyCo website.

“Farms participating in the project have been chosen as examples of excellent grassland management and measure growth rates using a rising plate meter once a week with quality tested every fortnight at a cost of about £12 a sample,” says Mr Badnell.

“Crude protein, metabolisable energy, growth rates and dry matter are recorded, allowing other producers to benchmark themselves and take steps to improve their own grassland.

“It’s early days, but results so far for ME are higher than expected, at 11.5-12.6. There is often a rise in ME in spring, but we’re hoping to show over several months the range can be kept consistent at 11-12 throughout the year, as ME is one area where you have control irrespective of other factors,” he says.

Kingshay figures for dairy herds yielding 7000-8000 litres a cow show there is a saving of 1.8p/litre on purchased feed between the top 25% and bottom 25% in terms of milk from grazing. The top quartile averaged almost 2300 litres from grass, while the bottom quartile achieved less than 500 litres, with a margin of just 17.5p/litre due to higher feed costs.

One of main problems with grass management can be the seasonal fluctuation in quality, according to Mr Badnell. “However, trials have shown with good management farmers can iron out these fluctuations and maintain high energy and protein levels throughout the season.

“Silage would never be fed in the winter ration without some idea of its worth and the same approach should be adopted with grazed grass. Grass management can affect ME and crude protein levels, but the only part of the analysis you can’t control is the DM, although fluctuations can be managed.

“If it has been raining for four or five days the DM is going to be mid-low teens, and if it has been good drying weather for a few days then it could be in the low 20s and this would give you an idea of DM intake potential,” he says.

“With good management, producers can keep ME at 11.5-12, CP at 18-20%, and NDF at 45-50% all year round. Not only does this mean farmers can have confidence in what their cows are eating, they can also plan their field rotation to make best use of pastures,” says Mr Badnell.

Knowing how ryegrass functions is one of the keys to good grassland management. The bottom 4cm of the plant is where sugars are stored, and these are essential for fast growth and re-growth rates. Ideally producers should turn cows out to graze when pastures reach 2400-2800kg/ha DM, allocating sufficient pasture for cows to graze down to 1500kg/ha DM in one day.

“By grazing in this way, producers will keep pastures at the optimum stage for rapid regrowth, as well as at target levels of ME and CP,” says Mr Badnell. Splitting fields can be done using electric fencing, water availability is also essential, and tracks will provide better access and greater flexibility in grazing.

“It’s possible for everyone to improve grassland management to ensure they are getting as much milk from grass as possible. Moving from the bottom to top quartile in milk from grazing in a 150 cow/7500 litre herd could be as much as £20,000 based on 1.8p/litre purchase feed saving cost. There is a positive correlation between milk from grazing and milk from forage and profitability,” he says.

  • DairyCo is running several feeding+ grazing module meetings to help producers improve their grassland management. For more information click here

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