Most dairy farmers view themselves as producers of milk, but for Cumbria dairy farmer Robert Craig he is a producer of grass.
For almost 20 years he’s followed the New Zealand principles of grassland management – a system that has driven the herd’s expansion to 390 cows and which continues to underpin his profitable milk-from-grass business.
Mr Craig’s system relies on accurate once-weekly calculation of grass growth on the farm’s 35 grazing paddocks. He knows precisely how much grass there is on the farm and reckons grass provides 5,000 litres of the milk produced from every cow.
“Turning grass into milk is at the heart of my business rather than producing more milk at higher cost and earning less on every litre we produced,” says Mr Craig of Cairnhead Farm, Ainstable.
The herd average just over 6,000 litres, although Mr Craig knows he could easily achieve a 9,000kg herd average with more concentrate feeding.
“It’s all about efficiency. This farm grows grass and for me milk production is a consequence of growing grass. There’s no incentive for me to chase yield through the added cost of feeding more concentrate because I know I’m producing milk as efficiently and as economically as I can. The grass we use to produce milk costs about a third of what concentrates costs in terms of dry matter.
“Grass managed properly is the linchpin of making the highest margin on every litre we produce – and that’s our aim. We’re feeding about 800kg of concentrates a cow – all fed through out-of-parlour feeders.”
The farm provides grazing from mid-March until early November. The final grazing round starts in late September with the aim of eating off half the farm in the last two weeks of September and the first week of October to clean out the swards and give a good start for the spring.
And Mr Craig says he can grow almost a third more grass compared with a traditional set-stocking approach simply by knowing what is going on in every field.
“It is a lot of extra grass you can grow. And you quickly realise you can keep more cows on the same area – and that’s motivating when you can increase your output without having to spend extra on bought-in feed or more land.”
Mr Craig walks the farm once a week and the grass cover on every paddock is measured and noted. There are 111ha (275 acres) in the 35 paddocks which provide a three-week grazing cycle. All the grass growth data goes into a software program.
“That information gives us a precise figure of the wedge of grass growing on the farm at that time. The software we’re using analyses the growth rate and average grass cover and you can plan your next week’s grazing accordingly.”
There’s no strict rule for shutting land up for silage. “Once we’ve got more grass than cows can eat we start thinking about grass for silage. We need 45kg of dry matter a cow a day so when we start producing between 50-80kg of dry matter more than we need we start thinking about silage. By mid-August this year we’d taken six cuts of silage grass that was surplus to our grazing needs.
“Silage-making is used as a way of controlling the quality of the grazed grass. Cows are eating about six to seven tonnes of silage a head.”
Extensive tracks have been built – about 7m wide – to access the paddock system. “Our system isn’t fancy. Setting up the tracks can be expensive when a big block of land is being switched over to paddocks but it’s a worthwhile cost.”
Maitaining pasture quality
Mr Craig says looking after pasture quality is important. “Rye-grass managed correctly will re-generate itself. When you look after rye-grass properly and graze it to the bottom every three weeks it’ll just keep tillering. It’s naturally a vigorous grass so we don’t have a re-seeding policy. Some fields have been down 20 years but it’s not old because we’re grazing new tillers.”
Grassland pH is also important on this system. Mr Craig aims for a pH of 6 and the first N is applied in late February/early March at about 40-50kg of N a hectare. Total N use is about 270kg a hectare with 60kg phosphate and 100kg of potash.
“We use nitrogen until early/mid May and then switch to an after-cut product. With a stocking rate of just over a cow an acre we’ve got to keep grass growing. But we are looking at better use of slurry and have a lagoon with three million gallon capacity.”
• Grazing land rises to 700ft above sea level
• Annual rainfall 50in
• Herd average 6,000 litre at 4.5% butterfat and 3.6% protein
• New Zealand Holstein genetics
• Total N use 270kg/ha
• 800kg of concentrates a cow fed through out of parlour feeders