Growing grass to match lactation

Silage is a waste product of an efficient grassland system, suggests a low-cost milk producer who reckons it is cheaper to purchase feed as a diet supplement.

By matching lactation to grass growth, silage is only fed to the dry cows at Cwrt Perrott Farm, near Newport, Gwent.

It is the crux of the spring calving system, maintains farm manager, Adam Boley.

“The grass quality is at its best after calving and mating and when growth rates slow down we feed supplements.”

The farm Mr Boley manages is not in an ideal grass growing area. Annual rainfall averages 875mm and the farm is prone to drought.

“We need to feed at a low level to compensate for those conditions,” he stresses.

“We get a positive economic response by feeding at an annual rate of 400kg a cow.

We could feed more concentrates to get more litres and get paid a bigger milk cheque, but the economics are questionable because of the costs associated with storing feed, dealing with slurry and employing more staff to facilitate that.”

With an average yield of 5000 litres/cow, Mr Boley estimates that 1000 litres are produced from concentrates.

This gives a comparable farm profit – his profit before rent, interest, finance, quota and drawings – of 7p/litre.

If he pushed cows harder with bigger feed intakes he would risk metabolic problems.

Matching strengths of the farm to the system is important too, he adds.

With two full time staff members and relief help during calving, labour is at the optimum for the system.

And it’s efficient for labour employed as well.

“There are farmers running spring calving grass-based systems who are getting 6000 litres, but if we wanted to use more purchased feed or increase our stocking rate we would have to finance it by buying more cows and quota.”

Mr Boley spent three years in New Zealand managing a 900 cow herd before taking on the management of Cwrt Perrott Farm in 2003.

Over there he had the chance to work in an environment with zero government subsidies and a low milk price where the only drivers were business acumen and profit.

“The great thing about working in these conditions is that you learn from working alongside some of the best grassland farmers in the world,” he says.

The farm he managed in New Zealand was 650m above sea level and had a rainfall average of 2.5m.

Working in such a challenging situation gave him the experience to apply objectives of the lowest cost conversion of grass to milk at Cwrt Perrott.

Mr Boley pushes the system hard, but selecting the right cow type maintains fertility.

Empty rates for the crossbreds 12 weeks after service are 5% compared to 17% for the Holsteins which currently make up 30% of the herd.

Last season his average empty rate was 11% – target for this year is 8%.

Better management and feeding has helped. but Mr Boley says this figure was largely the result of cow type.

“We are breeding a cow proven on a grass system,” he says.

His goal is to achieve a 90% submission rate in the first three weeks and to get 75% of cows in calf within six weeks.

The farm has a liquid milk contract with Dairy Crest which is why there are Holsteins in the herd. However, 17% of these will be leaving the herd this year because they have failed to get into calf.

He believes they’re simply not bred to produce on a low cost system.

“Once you get the right cow type the low cost system supports fertility because cows are not being pushed too hard.”

But he has been held back from converting the whole herd to crossbreds because there are so few on the market.

“It is hard to source ideal cows like Friesian/Jersey crosses in this country which is why we are breeding our own replacements,” he says.

“If we could have gone out and bought what we needed we would have done.”