How a dairy farmer cut feed costs to 7.68p/litre

Robotic dairy farmers Tony and Michael Ball have lifted milk from forage to 3,035 litres by taking four cuts every five weeks, helping to keep total feed costs at 7.68p/litre.

Previously, the brothers took three cuts annually, but since adopting a multi-cut system alongside implementing a zero-grazing system to make the best use of forage by keeping residuals low, they have increased milk from forage by 1,235 litres a cow in the past three years out of a total of 9,500 litres a cow a year.

“We have a specific machine for the cut-and-carry system (a Grass-Tech Super 160) and cut grass daily from March to September – depending on the weather,” explains Michael.

Farm facts

Coton Wood farm, Ashbourne, Derbyshire

  • 500 Holstein Friesian cows
  • Averaging 9,500 litres a cow a year at 4% fat and 3.35% protein
  • Milk sold to Freshways
  • Year-round calving, breeding own replacements
  • Grows 72ha (180 acres) of maize and 20ha (50 acres) of wholecrop
  • Milks on eight Lely robotic milkers

See also: Farmers Weekly Awards: 2021 Dairy Farmer of the Year finalists

He adds: “It all comes down to efficiency. If we can get more out of grass and save on our inputs, it really does all add up in terms of the bottom line.”

Cows are milked through eight Lely robots. The high-yielding cows are housed year-round, but the low-yielders go out to graze during the summer and are supplemented with buffer feed at night.

Michael Ball with cows

Michael Ball © Charlotte Cunningham

The zero-graze system adopts the principles of grazing, and the subsequent performance, but allows the Balls to minimise wastage, too.

It also results in better-quality forage, mainly in terms of improved nutrient density, which is allowing them to reduce concentrate.

Concentrate has been cut by 400kg a cow over the past 18 months without compromising yield, with feed rate a litre now sitting at 0.34kg – the equivalent of 3.2t a cow a year.

“In a year like this, where concentrate prices are through the roof, the saving here offsets any additional costs involved with the system we are running,” explains Michael.

Feeding

The high-yielders are fed a total mixed ration in the morning. This comprises 50% maize silage, 25% grass silage, and 25% wholecrop – and a little bit of concentrate, with the cut grass fed on top.

On a per-cow basis, this works out at about 4kg dry matter (DM) of fresh grass, 8kg DM forage and 6kg of straights.

When cows visit the robots, they are topped up with concentrate as and when needed – with quantity specific to the individual cow or yield.

High-yielders are fed to a target of maintenance +27 litres and the low-yielders are fed for +13 litres.

Cows feeding

© Charlotte Cunningham

Fresh grass is cut from a nearby block of land that could not be grazed, with the Balls cutting about 0.8-1.2ha (2-3 acres) each day.

“Obviously, there are weather implications to consider, but we are still able to cut, whether it is wet or dry.”

In the winter, cattle are on a 50:50 grass/maize silage ration – with the maize also grown on-farm.

Challenges

“The biggest issue we find with the lows is giving them enough buffer to keep them full, while still encouraging them to graze.

“We do struggle to get them to graze tight and keep the residuals down, which is why we would never graze them night and day – we tried that a few years ago and it just did not work.”

With both systems, there is a greater labour burden, but Michael says the farm uses contractors for silage-making to reduce the pressure on in-house staff.

“We do all the carting and clamping ourselves, but we get a contractor in with a mower and rake, and then we do the rest.

The Grass-Tech Super 160 c

The Grass-Tech Super 160 cuts about 0.8-1.2ha of grass a day © Charlotte Cunningham

“It does cost you more in terms of machinery, as we do have slightly lighter cuts – which increases the cost per cut – but it still works out better to make the best use of what we have and grow, rather than relying on potentially expensive concentrates.”

Michael says the biggest challenge is keeping the grass at the right stage. This depends entirely on the weather, so he says having a degree of flexibility is key to making it work.

For anyone thinking about adopting a similar system, Michael advises the most important thing is to trust the forage to do the work for you.

“When we first started on the robots, we saw a yield increase and thought it was a good idea to just chuck a lot of concentrate at them to sustain that increase, but the cows did not quite perform how we expected.

“Instead, we have proven that you can get those yields without the additional cost of concentrates. The cut-and-carry system is where we have seen particular benefits.”

Pros and cons of zero-grazing

Below, Beth May, a dairy specialist at Wynnstay, lists some of the key considerations for those thinking about adopting a zero-grazing system:

✅ It is a great option if you don’t have the infrastructure for grazing, such as troughs and tracks, but still want to get the benefits of grazed grass
✅ It can help boost dry matter intake
✅ If supplemented with a total mixed ration it proves a consistently controlled diet – much more so than grazing alone – which is particularly beneficial for high-yielding cows
✅ Consistent diets help boost rumen health, milk yield, and quality
✅ Can help maintain grass residuals better than grazing – cows are not as reliable as a mower
✅ Potential to increase stocking rates
✅ Can help reduce costly concentrate costs

❌ Labour intensive
❌ Often a requirement to invest in specific machinery – also depreciation costs to consider
❌ Effectively, it is still grass and still subject to seasonal variations, so supplementary feeding may be required to balance the diet later in the season
❌ For best practice, you must ensure other forages and concentrates are available to allow flexibility

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