Any dairy farmer serious about making the most from grass needs to install suitable cow tracks around the farm.
That is the advice from DairyCo grazing expert Piers Badnell, who says that to graze cows properly you need proper tracks.
“To make the best use of grazing you need to turn out early in the season to get grass under control. Tracks allow this without damaging pastures.
Mid-April turnout is too late as grass will have grown away and you will struggle to manage it and get the quality and quantity that is necessary,” he says.
5 top tips for installing cow tracks
- Good planning is essential to get maximum benefit for the minimum cost. A 5m track, of which 4m is surfaced, will enable good flow for up to 200 cows. Each additional 100 cows would require an extra 1m width.
- Ideally tracks should be sited away from areas where higher levels of maintenance would be required, such as behind hedges, in hollows or in heavily shaded areas.
- The quality of the surface along which cows have to walk is paramount. A variety of materials may be used to construct a track base, but the surface should be free of sharp stones, rubble or gravel.
- Cow tracks must be properly maintained and not routinely used by farm machinery, which is likely to damage them. Fences should be sited to make the maintenance of drains and ditches easier.
- Gateways, narrow tracks and the areas surrounding water troughs require special attention as they are often covered with sharp stones, rubble or gravel and are liable to become muddy in wet weather. These areas can be improved by durable, permeable surface materials. Poorly drained soil and wet or muddy areas can cause hoof horn to become soft and more injury- and disease-prone.
“Once the plant gets beyond three leaves it increases stem and the leaves die, which means the quality and palatability suffers.
You should be aiming for spring-like grass all season at 12ME, but this needs management and early grazing to achieve,” he explains.
Mr Badnell says there is a return on investment from installing tracks and urges dairy producers to do their sums.
For example, grass is the cheapest feed at about 6p/kg dry matter (DM), whereas silage is 12p/kg and concentrates 24p/kg.
So by getting cows out early and keeping them out longer farmers can increase the proportion of milk from grass at the expense of silage and concentrates, and so reduce cost of production.
Mr Badnell also says farmers who get cows out earlier will reduce housing costs, which can save £1-£2.50/day, not taking into account feed costs.
“By getting a cow turned out earlier you are saving £1.50/day in feed costs and £1.50/day in housing costs, totalling £3 a cow a day.
See also: Cow tracks get overhaul-farmer focus
If you have a 100-cow herd, that’s £300/day you are saving. If you were to install tracks you could be looking at £15/m for a home-quarried stone track and doing the labour yourself, so the £300/day saving would pay for 20m of track.”
Concrete tracks and other materials cost more. Mr Badnell estimates concrete track is £12-£32/m, plus some installation costs on top.
“It can be costly, but concrete sleepers will last a lifetime,” he says.
Type of track
A number of materials of varying costs can be used for cow tracks.
These include solid surfaces such as concrete or wooden sleepers and AstroTurf, through to softer surfaces such as quarried stone, woodchip, sand and limestone dust.
The type of material used may be influenced by what is available locally, as haulage can add to the costs.
Material choice may also depend on how far cows will be walking. For example, concrete can be abrasive on hooves so, over longer distances, a softer material is often preferable.
Track material should also be smooth and free of debris that could get trapped between hoof claws or anything that could puncture the soles.
Mr Badnell says a good test of a cow track is to walk on it in your socks. “You should be able to do this without any pain.
Then it is good enough for the cows,” he says. A successful track also needs a good camber of 3-6% (10% maximum) so the water runs off the sides.
A good tip when planning is to print off a Google Map of the farm and work out the track positions on paper.
Mr Badnell suggests an average set-up should include 25-30 grazing areas, so the track system needs to enable this.
“Flexibility is key and you want to be able to maximise grass from the minimum length of track, which often means running the track down the middle of the field so you have access both sides.”
See also: How to prevent lameness in dairy heifers
Width and gradient
The rule of thumb when it comes to tracks is a width of 5m for every 100 cows and 1m more for every 100 extra cows beyond 200 cows.
Mr Badnell suggests planning for the future, particularly when expansion is on the cards.
In terms of gradient, steep slopes should be avoided and for a loose-surface track the maximum gradient should be 12%, but ideally no more than 8%.
Design and build
When laying a track for livestock, Mr Badnell stresses it is not necessary to strip the topsoil off as you would for a machinery track.
He suggests the body of the track should be built in 150mm layers and compacted to increase its durability and lifespan.
Consolidation is king, he says. “When you are using materials such as quarried stone, you cannot roll it enough to ensure you get a smooth surface.”
Drainage is also critical. If the camber is less than 3-6% there must be a crossfall of 150mm on tracks less than 4m wide.
Keeping water off the tracks will mean lower maintenance costs, says Mr Badnell.
He adds that a membrane may be required, particularly on low-lying or heavy clay land. “Something like a Terram nylon membrane will help build stability.
Installation cost £3-£6 when quarried on the farm or £8-12/t if sourced off-farm and delivered. DairyCo says it takes roughly 1t of stone per square metre of track. So if the track is 5m wide, it can cost £15-£60 per running metre.
Durability and maintenance Long lasting. Requires top-up of stone every three years.
Benefits Softer stone, such as sandstone and limestone, can be kind to cows’ feet and lasts a number of years.
Buyer warning Do not use sharp stones such as flint. When installing make sure there is a camber so you get adequate drainage. It is really tempting to scrape the tracks cleans, but this should be avoided as it will remove the top layer.
Stone tracks are the main choice of cow track at 2014 Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year Robert Craig’s Cairnhead Farm, Ainstable, Cumbria. More than one-and-a-half miles of locally quarried stone form the tracks on the 120ha farm.
The paddock grazing system at Cairnhead would not be able to operate without the tracks that feed the 30 paddocks. The fact stone is quarried on farm makes stone tracks particularly cost-effective, says George Brown, dairy farm manager at Cairnhead and former Farmers Weekly Farmers Apprentice winner 2012.
Fine stones are placed on an aggregate base with a decent camber to allow drainage. Mr Brown says as long as there is a decent camber then no other drainage is required.
Tracks allow an extended grazing period on this farm, which sits about 600ft above sea level. This year cows were turned out by 25 February and will graze through to the end of November.
Mr Brown says: “We are not only saving on feed and housing costs, it also saves us one or two hours of labour a day,” he adds.
Installation cost £60/m including fitting (£10/m) for a 5m-wide track.
Durability and maintenance Lasts forever. Only maintenance required is brushing off any stones to prevent lameness problems.
Benefits Smooth surface that cows feel comfortable walking on. It is also free-draining so cow flow should not be a problem. Sleepers can be removed and resited if required.
Buyer warning When cows are walking long distances, concrete can be quite abrasive on hooves.
About 400m of concrete sleepers were installed last year at 2014 Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year Robert Craig’s Cairnhead Farm, Ainstable, Cumbria.
Dairy manager George Brown says that, as the land is rented, moveable sleepers are used.
“Concrete sleepers are hard-wearing and low maintenance,” he says. “The only maintenance that may be required is brushing if cows are picking up stones in paddocks and then walking them on to the sleepers.”
Mr Brown says no preparation of the earth was required when the sleepers were installed.
“They were just placed straight on the ground. Drainage is also not an issue as the water just runs through the gaps between the sleepers.”
Mr Brown says the cows walk quicker on the concrete sleepers compared with the stone tracks and puts this down to the surface type.
“It could be that they are more unsure of the stone surface or the concrete surface is maybe more comfortable and even,” he adds.
The concrete sleeper tracks are 3m wide and are fenced either side about one-third of a metre away from the track. This allows maximum use as cows can walk right on the edge of the sleepers.
In a perfect world, Mr Brown says he would use concrete sleepers in areas that had the most use and would put stone elsewhere since it is cheaper. “Sleepers are great, but expensive,” he adds.
Installation cost £4-£5/m or £2-£2.50/sq m for good grade sand-filled AstroTurf.
Durability and maintenance At least 10 years’ lifespan when topped up with sand. Need to keep sand topped up every year. A 1t bag of sand costing about £32 would cover 500m of AstroTurf.
Benefits Soft to walk on. Can help clean cows feet. Price is comparable with that of other track materials.
Buyer warning There are a lot of cheap products out there that are too thin and would not suit as a cow track. Make sure you buy the right grade that is thick (at least 2.5cm) and sand-filled. The AstroTurf can also be hard to source.
Michael McCreath bolstered the sides of his farm tracks with roughly half a mile of AstroTurf just over a year ago following a series or foot problems in the herd.
Cows were also slow to come in to the parlour, admits Mr McCreath, who milks 160 Holstein Friesian Jersey crosses at the 180ha Garlieston Home Farm, Newton Stewart.
Initially I found out about AstroTurf from a DairyCo workshop. After that I secured two free loads, but they turned out to be too thin.
AstroTurf, which is used on sports pitches, has a thick rubber base and is made up of synthetic fibres, which holds the sand in place.
It is free-draining and heavy, so lies flat. It must, however, be laid on a firm base that doesn’t contain pits and holes, so when it is rolled out it is level.
Installation is easy – simply carry the strips with a front-end loader then roll them out with a mini digger.
Mr McCreath says since he has been using AstroTurf he has seen fewer cases of lameness, particularly from punctured soles.
He is so impressed with the product, he plans on installing a further half-mile or so later this year.
Mr McCreath admits the AstroTurf can be hard to source, but since installing it on his own farm he has set-up Astrotracks.co.uk to help other farmers get hold of good grade product from across the UK.
He has 40 paddocks on a 20-day rotation and says that since installing cow tracks it is easier to reach those paddocks that are further away.
He adds: “The cows certainly look more content. When walking along the tracks they have their heads up, so they are not worried about where they are putting their feet.”
Installation cost One silage-size trailer-load of woodchip is about £100 and goes along way.
Durability and maintenance
If using as a permanent track, a solid base is required which will cost extra.
Benefits Great for cows’ feet.
Buyer warning When woodchips are laid on soil or a poor track they don’t last long and can, as a result, be expensive.
They can be used as a temporary measure to improve cow tracks.
Woodchip was used as a quick fix to fill in 100m of wet stone track areas at Cairnhead Farm, says Mr Brown.
“It’s not ideal and when they go from one surface to another it can affect cow flow. But it did what we intended it to do and got rid of the wet areas.”
Mr Brown says they bought three trailer loads and just spread it across the existing stone track about 15cm deep. He says it lasted for about a month before it started to look messy.
“It allowed us to extend the grazing period at the end of last year and we would use it again to solve the same problem.
I wouldn’t, however, advocate using this as a main track. But it is a good quick fix.”