Making adjustments to account for damage to waterlogged soils is allowing one grass-based Welsh dairy system to stand firm on its spring grazing rotation.
At Gelli Aur Farm in Carmarthenshire, the 270-cow spring calving herd of cross-breeds is set for turnout as normal about 10 February.
With early grazing worth approximately £2 a cow a day through higher animal performance and lower feed costs, the business can’t afford to lose that advantage, says John Owen, who manages the college farm.
But he is making some adjustments and will supplement the herd in the first grazing round to plug the gap created by lower quality grass due to dying leaf at the base of swards.
Farming Connect is a Wales-wide service funded by the Rural Development Programme and Welsh government. As part of a series Farmers Weekly is visiting Farming Connect demonstration farms regularly to find out what projects have been undertaken and how performance is benefiting.
The spring calvers, which started calving at the end of January, are receiving 5kg of concentrates in the parlour and will do so until they have finished grazing the first round.
“The whole purpose of this system is to preserve the cost saving potential of grazed grass, not to exaggerate the problems that this wet winter has thrown at us,” says Mr Owen.
“Our aim is to get the spring calvers settled onto a no supplement diet at least two weeks before the breeding season begins.”
Mr Owen expects soils to have lower residual levels of nitrogen after prolonged and heavy periods of rain, so fertiliser inputs will be boosted to encourage grass to grow well.
An extra 5kg N/ha will be applied with every dressing – 30kg N/ha in the first grazing round instead of the usual 25kg and a second application of 40kg before the end of March.
The grazing rotation at Gelli Aur is not a fixed paddock system, fields are instead subdivided with electric fences.
Although this system does create additional labour, Mr Owen says it gives greater flexibility, a crucial feature this spring.
“We can tweak the grazing area according to the number of cows we are grazing at any one time and the amount of grass that is available.
“The beauty of this system is that we have tracks running between the fields so each temporary paddock has its own entry and exit point. We back fence so the cows keep moving forward.”
Mr Owen aims for a daily grass allocation of 5-6kg dry matter a cow at turnout, until the herd is at grass day and night.
If needed, he will operate an on-off grazing system to minimise poaching. To encourage high grass production, he plans to graze between 30-40% of the milking platform by 1 March.
Last year, the spring calving herd produced an average of 3,700 litres of milk from forage, but Mr Owen aims to increase this figure by reducing concentrate input.
The spring-calving herd received 800kg a cow last year, but this season they will get 500kg.
“The milk price outlook still looks pretty grim so we need to challenge the grazing system,” says Mr Owen.
Reconditioning swards is a priority in fields damaged by waterlogging.
“As soon as conditions allow, grass seed will be drilled into these areas, before weeds get a chance to establish.
“We will keep an eye on sward density but swards will rejuvenate by grazing alone.
“Grazing will stimulate growth and improve quality into the second round to coincide with the start of the breeding period for spring calvers,” says Mr Owen.
Jamie McCoy, Farming Connect dairy technical officer and project co-ordinator at Gelli Aur, says difficult conditions should not take the focus away from getting freshly calved spring calvers or in-calf autumn calvers out to grass.
“Use a spring rotation planner and stick to the plan if conditions allow,” she advises.
To reduce input costs, slurry can be applied to 30% of the grazing area, to the fields that the cows will graze last.
Ideally, this should be applied with a trailing shoe or dribble bar to maximise nutrient uptake and minimise the risk of contamination, says Ms McCoy.
“Analysing the nitrogen levels in slurry can reduce the level of bagged nitrogen applied. Good quality slurry can replace up to 30kg N/ha,” she says.
Using urea for the first application can reduce the risk of further leaching, she adds.
Early application of phosphate will also encourage root development and rejuvenation.
“Sulphur is also particularly vulnerable to being washed out of the soil so sampling will establish what effect the weather has had on the levels.
“Take advice on how to address any issues that may arise,” says Ms McCoy.
As part of its new programme, Farming Connect is offering eligible and registered businesses in Wales a chance to attend a soils and grassland clinic; these will provide five free soil samples and analysis.
Spring rotation planner
A spring rotation planner (SRP) is going to be a key tool in helping dairy grazers manage pasture quality this spring and cut costs.
“The spring rotation planner helps farmers manage pasture at a time where growth is increasing and identifies how much area to allocate animals and how to increase area over time,” says Pasture to Profit consultant Piers Badnell, from Livestock Improvement Corporation UK.
And while spring grazers will be familiar with SRP all herds can actually benefit from using one, including all-year round and autumn-calving herds, providing they have a significant number of cows to graze.
“The fundamental thing is for cows to get around the grazing block by balance date (where grass supply equals demand),” explains Mr Badnell.
Due to the unprecedented levels of growth this autumn/winter it is imperative cows achieve a good residual on the first round to maintain quality for subsequent rounds, he says.
The aim should be to graze fields down to 3.5cm or 4cm. In comparison to residuals of 4.5-5cm this have proven to achieve 10% more leaf.