Grazing challenge – give top cows what they need
Grazing and extending the
grazing season to lower milk
production costs were the
topics at the Milk Development
Councils first Focus Centre
meeting in Scotland.
Jessica Buss reports
COWS have changed over recent years, and providing high merit, 30 to 40-litre cows, with adequate nutrition when grazing is a challenge.
But it is possible, according to Sinclair Mayne of the Agricultural Research Institute of Northern Ireland, Hillsborough.
Speaking at the MDC Focus Centre meeting at SACs Crichton Royal Farm, Dumfries, he said grazed grass would remain the cheapest feed, but he warned that the true cost of grass silage was rising. Making high quality grass silage to feed these cows means taking a number of cuts, and labour and machinery costs are increasing.
But concentrates are becoming increasingly competitive in price, making them suitable for supplementing cows at grass more efficiently than feeding silage or allowing yields to fall.
Producers with a 750,000-litre quota had two options to maintain profits, he said. Increasing production by 100,000 litres with leased quota for a margin of 4p/litre was worth £4000 a year. Alternatively, cutting costs by 1p/litre could improve profit by £7500 a year.
"In practice the solution for most producers is a combination of inc-reasing production and cutting costs." But in many cases cost cutting could be achieved by increasing reliance on grazed grass, he said. "You need to grow high yields of grass, which most producers are successful at. But you also need to convert it efficiently into milk.
At Hillsborough the high genetic merit herd, with first lactation heifers of £80-85 PIN, can produce 35 litres at grass, but they have different feed requirements to lower yielding cows.
"High merit, high production animals need 20% more feed to maintain yield, body weight and get back in calf. We will always struggle to feed animals giving over 35kg of milk entirely on grass."
But research showed that cows could eat 20% more grass if they took more in each bite, added Dr Mayne. Cows graze for a constant time of about 10 hours a day and took 60 bites a minute, but when given longer grass they ate 0.6g a bite rather than 0.5g a bite. On shorter grass they had a daily dry matter intake of 18kg, but on longer grass it was 21.6kg, he said.
On a short set stocked sward, intakes may only be 0.4g a bite. That meant intakes were only 14-15kg DM which could only support 23-24kg of milk, he warned.
"To maximise intake a bite you need a tall dense sward. That is easy in spring, but difficult to maintain through the season. That does not mean set stocking is out; in some situations it can work. But it needs a dense sward to compensate for lower grass height."
Rotational grazing requires a tall sward and any grass left behind must be controlled using a leader-follower system or topping.
There may be easier ways to obtain extra performance from grass other than maximising grass intakes, he said. But forages have high substitution rates, so cows have less drive to eat grass and you cannot target higher yielding cows that need supplement, he advised.
Dr Mayne believed concentrates, which were becoming cheaper, could give cows the extra nutrients for higher yields more efficiently at grass than in winter. It is best to target individual cows, which is possible where parlour feeders are fitted.
By mid-August a 35-litre cow can produce 24.5 litres from grass alone, and should be supplemented with 9kg concentrate. A 25-litre cow can produce 20 litres from grazing and should receive 4.5kg of concentrate.
Aim buffer feed at the herds highest yielders
GIVEN the choice cows will eat a buffer feed and leave grass, so when you can get production off grass do not offer buffer.
SACs Jimmy Goldie advised producers to consider whether they could offer more grass before starting buffer feeding.
"When you start buffer feeding and cows do not need it, yields will be maintained but grass quality will begin to decline.
"When you do decide that buffer feeding is needed, target high yielding cows. Those giving below 25 litres may not get much benefit from a buffer for most of the summer.
"Cows can produce 23-24 litres off mid-August grass, but on many farms 18 litres is more realistic, and if set stocking, nearer 12 litres is likely," he said.
He advised working out how much cows can obtain from grass, and then estimating how much buffer to offer.
First consider offering concentrates in the parlour, where possible. Also think about splitting cows, so that only cows that need buffer are offered it.
"Any forages fed must be good quality – poor big bale silage is not going to increase milk production." Then ensure the ration is balanced and feed concentrate to balance it if required, he said.
Control those fixed costs to maintain profits, urges SAC
MEN, money and machines are causing most difficulties in maintaining dairy profits with lower milk prices, said SAC farm business manager Sandy Ramsay.
Mr Ramsay, who manages SACs five dairy units with 800 cows, said a 10% cut in fixed costs could increase profit by 60%.
He advised producers at the MDC Focus meeting to analyse their accounts, using costs a litre, and compare them with other farms results to assess their strengths and weaknesses. He suggested the MDC book Controlling Overhead Costs would help and offered some potential solutions.
To help control labour costs producers had to consider economies of scale to increase output a labour unit: Consider joint ventures, machinery rings, contracting and spreading machinery investment between farms, he advised.
"Also, do a labour profile to assess your monthly requirement and look for surpluses or areas when you could save money by using contractors. Then check work routines and consider skills training to improve labour efficiency."
Start looking at saving machinery costs by classifying equipment based on the need to own it. Sell equipment that is not essential, and maintain and care for the rest.
To cut money costs, sell off assets that are not contributing to business profits such as cottages; consider rescheduling loans if interest rates are now lower, but check current agreements for penalty clauses, said Mr Ramsay.
75 make fair income
MILK producers need at least 75 cows to maintain a reasonable family farm income, and in two or three years that will increase to 100 cows.
So said ARINIs Sinclair Mayne at the Dumfries MDC meeting. He believes grazed grass is the key to profitable milk production.
"Grass is the cheapest feed, but it is the most difficult to make efficient use of. That is why producers have steered away from it recently."
The times of higher milk prices encouraged over-investment in buildings and machinery, which was sustainable then. But he believed machinery use would reduce with lower milk prices and the interest in grazing is already rising.
September quality not good enough
HEIFERS are most likely not to reach target growth rates when they stay out at grass in September and October, warned SACs David Webster.
"By September grass quality is declining and the days are shorter, reducing grazing time. But many producers keep heifers outside because it is easier and then they do not gain any weight at all in October."
When calving at two years old, heifers must be kept growing. He suggested housing them by mid-October at the latest or offering some concentrate outside to maintain growth rates.
Prepare fields for early turnout
DECIDE on a suitable field for early turnout so you can start to prepare it by grazing it down hard in late September.
An MDC-funded experiment found that the best way to provide an area for early turnout is to graze it down to 6cm (2.4in) in late September, said SACs David Roberts. Then let it grow, so it is 10cm (4in) high by late November.
Second best option is to graze grass to 10cm in late November.
"Leaving too much grass over winter means it can become rank, but grazing it to 6cm in September results in more live shoots and grass for spring grazing."
At both the Dumfries and Shropshire trial sites no winter kill was seen last season.
"Leave longer grass over winter for it to grow quickly in spring. But mob stock it in autumn to bring the cover right down. Also, be aware that grass left slightly longer will grow away quickly in ideal weather and you need to be able to keep on top of it. Otherwise you will end up making it into silage."
He suggested managing just one or two fields in this way with the aim of turning cows out up to three weeks earlier. Be prepared to make silage on these fields in a wet spring, but do not put sheep on them. Ensure field have good access with more than one gateway where possible, advised Dr Roberts.
On many drier sites it is possible to get cows out for two or three hours a day before turning out all day. *
Summer-born calves are happier and healthier in a dutch barn rather than the calf shed. SACs David Webster told visitors to Crichton Royal Farm that its good to give calf rearing accommodation a break to avoid build up of disease challenge. The open sided barn means few calves suffer scours and none have pneumonia. When in the barn they are reared in small groups and trough-fed 4 litres of milk a day.