Keeping livestock outside 365 days pays off

With good management and the right attitude, keeping dairy cows and calves outside can create a profitable, low-cost system.

The idea of keeping dairy cows outside 365 days a year is often dismissed as something that should be left to the Kiwis. However, a Berkshire organic farm has proved with a “can do” attitude anything is possible.

Tenant farmer Brian Goodenough, of Eling Farm, Hermitage, made the move to a New Zealand-style system in 2001 following an increase in cow numbers.

“We approached our landlord with the idea of investing in housing for a 500-cow unit. When this idea was dismissed it was a choice between getting out of milking or adopting a low-cost system,” says Mr Goodenough.

“We decided to step out of the box and do something different.”

“How we perceive cows in wet, muddy fields is often the reason cows are not kept outside all year. However, cows are a lot hardier than you think – undoubtedly this wouldn’t work with Holsteins, but with good Friesian cross cows it is possible.”

A combination of the right ground, good cow breeding and, most importantly, an open mind and willingness to learn has made the system a success – an achievement marked by their entry into the NMR Gold Cup.

The way the system is managed is always being tweaked to maximise efficiency. Up until this season the farm has run an autumn and a spring calving herd separately. This is the first year all 390 cows have calved in spring, starting in February and running until mid-April.

Calving is the only time when cows come inside, with space for 120 cows at one time. At this time cows calve in a lambing-pen style system with each calf with its mother for 24-48 hours, depending on how many cows are coming through.

When cows calve ahead of the grass, they are held on a straw pad outside until grass is sufficient. This also means cows are kept on a more consistent diet.

After drying off in December, cows are sent to silage ground or sacrifice fields and ring-fed hay or round bale silage. This ensures the 101 hectares (250 acres) of primary grazing ground is not sacrificed.

“We ensure feeders are moved regularly to prevent poaching and when it gets wet we provide straw pads for cows to lie on.”

“We do get soil compaction, but tractors do more damage than cows,” says Mr Goodenough. “Cows only cause compaction down to two inches and to combat this we slit-aerate.”

Next year, straw pads will be moved nearer to the farm for ease of management. “Straw is an added cost, but it reduces field damage and also provides good fertiliser, which is essential for our sandy/silty soil.”

Walking cows up to a mile to grazing ground also places animals under added pressure, says herd manager, Jerry Austin. “A few years ago we had a problem with cow lethargy. However, since addressing a selenium deficiency and providing minerals via the water system, cows are less lethargic and about 15 minutes quicker to walk in.”

One of the challenges of block-calving 390 cows is the volume of calves needing to be reared. In response to limited housing space, this year has seen all bull calves reared outside.

“Yet again, rearing calves outside is something often perceived as a no-go in England,” says Mr Austin. “But as long as you provide shelter, be it a hedge or some straw bales, calves can really prosper.”

Mr Goodenough also recognises outdoor rearing can set calves up for grazing. “We have found steers are eating grass as early as four weeks. They may not be fully digesting it at this stage, but undoubtedly it gets them used to grazing early on which is highly beneficial on our system.”

In fact, outside rearing has proved so successful in terms of reduced straw costs and good calf health, next season, the first batch of calves, including both heifers and bulls will be raised outdoors.

This year has also seen the purchase of a 50-teat trailed milk feeder allowing calves to be fed once a day in groups of 45 after a few weeks of age. This has been used with some success both for indoor and outdoor reared calves. “The milk feeder has allowed one man to rear about 360 calves,” says Mr Austin.