Farmer experience backs up Irish research that shows outwintering dry cows is cost-effective and welfare friendly, delegates at LIC’s Pasture to Profit conference heard.
With conventional winter feeding and housing costs standing at £300 a cow, or 6.5p/litre, more spring-calving herds in Ireland are looking at outwintering pads for dry cows.
Grazing forage in situ significantly reduced winter feeding costs, said Padraig French from Moorepark Research Centre, but perennial ryegrass had limits – it was impossible to build up the necessary quantity and maintain quality
Trials showed grass-fed dry cows calved well below target body condition scores. Those fed a diet of 8kg kale with 4kg baled silage, or 8kg swedes with 4kg silage, achieved moderate condition scores at calving. A housed group fed high-quality silage had the highest score. Dr French put forward the possibility of managing set-ups where thinner cows are housed on quality silage and fit cows are outwintered. There was, he added, no effect of winter feeding treatment on milk solids production in the subsequent lactation (table 1).
Placing silage in fields may not be necessary to ensure succesful outwintering, according to the latest research
But alternative systems for wintering dry cows not only have to be labour efficient with low capital costs. Running costs should be minimal and pads have to meet environmental requirements. Trials over the past five winters have compared a range of different outwintering options: Indoor cubicles a wintering pad with easy-feed silage and 12sq m a cow of space wintering pad with 16sq m a cow plus 4sq m a cow of self-feed silage and a pad with 6sq m a cow with a wind-break and plastic overhead cover (table 2).
Although higher calf birthweights were achieved outside, there was no statistically significant advantage to subsequent milk production. But neither was there a negative impact on cow welfare, said Dr French.
Further work proved dry cows can graze kale without requiring any fibre supplement such as silage or straw. This potential to have diets of 100% kale can remove the significant cost and hassle of feeding such extra fibre.
“Fibre maintains rumen function, as brassicas have relatively low levels of fibre and high levels of rapidly available carbohydrate. This could induce acidosis. However, when cows harvest forage crops in-situ they produce more saliva, which buffers the rumen,” he added.
Table 1: Effect on performance of outwintering dry cows compared with housed cows on grass silage
BCS at drying off
BCS four weeks post-calving
Calf birthweight (kg)
Milk solids production (kg)
Calving to conception (days)
Empty rate (%)
Table 2: Effects of winter system on spring-calver performance
Silage intake (kg DM a day}
Kg milk solids
Calf birthweight (kg)
Liveweight gain (kg a day)
Outwintering cows and youngstock is cutting costs, producing healthier stock and generating lifestyle benefits for families and staff. Andrew Brewer has certainly seen the difference. Two people can now feed 1000 head of outwintered cattle in less than two hours on his farm at Ennis Barton, Cornwall.
“Our aim is to outwinter all stock including newborn calves from 24-48 hours old. We want to minimise labour input, maximise lifestyle opportunities and keep our costs as low as possible,” Mr Brewer told delegates.
Stock have outwintered since 2002, on 110ha (270 acres) that includes 25ha (62 acres) of fodder beet and 5ha (12.5 acres) of a swedes and kale mix. “Another objective is to have fit cows with thick, healthy coats so they are acclimatised to graze day and night as soon as they calve. And in our experience, cows and heifers have an improved muscle tone, so calve quicker and easier.”
Comparing costs from four different outwintering set-ups on Michael Kyle’s Dumfries farm reveals woodchip to be the most expensive at £1.07 a day (excluding capital costs of slurry storage). Grazing 100% kale is the cheapest at £0.61 a day and catch crops come in at £0.63 a day, but he finds they can be unreliable.
He and his wife Lorrie want to be milking 1000 cows within four years, yet get them through winter as cheaply as possible in part, a decision motivated by moving to a new farm that had no buildings. “We decided, therefore, to build no sheds, just one for the parlour,” said Mr Kyle. “Our set-up consists of kale with silage bales, kale alone, catch crops on neighbouring arable land, and a woodchip stand-off pad.”
With a couple of years’ experience, they are now reconsidering the cost of making baled silage. “Many people suggest one-third of the diet needs to be silage. However, we are trying small numbers of cows on kale only. They are putting flesh on and surviving. For the main group, silage now makes up less than 20% of the diet.”