Whether you are a dry or wet farm, there is potential to reduce feed costs and protect your business from volatile markets by making better use of grazed grass.
For Cheshire dairy farmer Graham Roberts running a low cost, simple forage-focused system ticks all the boxes when it comes to protecting himself against market volatility. So convinced is he, that he runs two tenanted farms under the same principles at Darnhall, Winsford.
One is a spring block calving system of 400 predominantly Friesian cows and the second, an autumn block calving herd of 310 cows. The aim of both is to maximise performance from forage, with the springs achieving 65% milk from forage and the autumns 55% (see panel).
Mr Roberts explains: “The more cost you put in, the lower the value of what you get out at the end. I’m doing it this way as it works. Over the next 10 years I think farmers will need to look at their costs. We need to get better at understanding costs and if the job doesn’t work with the labour units you’ve got, then things need to change. Labour is going to be a big issue.”
The spring calvers are able to graze for longer in autumn as they approach the end of their lactations, before going out early in spring to reach peak yield on new season grass.
The autumn calvers calve on standing hay in September and are then grazed, before being housed and fed with a mix of two-thirds grass silage and one-third wholecrop and maize, with all concentrates fed in the parlour as they build to peak and get ready for service. Both farms are on heavy clay soils which means grazing infrastructure is crucial to success.
As paddocks are of varying sizes, both herds are strip grazed. Multiple gateways and concrete sleeper tracks mean cows can access paddocks without poaching ground.
Mr Roberts says: “At Moors Lane [spring herd], we’ve got two big tracks in two directions which we can pull off and we’ve got plenty of gateways – that’s the main thing. We’ve got six gateways into one 24-acre field.” This proves particularly handy in spring, allowing fresh-calved cows to go out to grass around February time and get early grass growth under control for the season ahead.
At this time, cows are generally grazed from 7am to 12pm on tight paddocks which are back fenced to prevent them from poaching the whole field. Like many farmers, over the last three years, Mr Roberts has experienced sustained grass growth at the back end of the year, enabling cows to be grazed for longer.
This has meant planning grass requirements has been increasingly important to ensure grass is set up for spring. As the spring calvers are approaching the end of their lactation at this time, they are challenged to get more from grazing. Fields start to be shut up from October.
The team carefully calculate how many grazing feeds are needed from mid-October to December 1 when the spring herd is housed full-time. Grazing and buffer feed requirements are then planned accordingly.
Mr Roberts adds: “If you’re not too careful, you can leave them out too long so you’re moving your start date back in spring.”
As the autumn calvers are freshly-calved, grazing residuals are not pushed in autumn. Instead, fresh cows graze to around 1,800kg DM/hectare and are then followed by dry cows which graze down to the target 1,600kg DM/ha. Having begun by measuring fields with a grass plate meter to create a grazing wedge, following years of experience, Mr Roberts now tends to rely on judgement, with the grass plate meter used a couple of times a month.
However, whichever method is used, the information is utilised to plan grazing strategy for the week ahead. This is written on two big, white boards where staff can clearly see where cows need to go and how the fields need to be split.
The team also operate a number of grazing management practices to promote maximum utilisation of grazed grass. These include:
The principles of the autumn and spring calving system are the same – to use grazed grass and forage as the foundations and compliment this with the correct bought-in feeds and minerals. The business’ nutritionist Alan Webster, of Massey Feeds, runs through the key feeding considerations on a grazing system:
Cereal selection: In summer, the cereal source in parlour cake is swapped from wheat to barley. This is slower fermenting which complements the spring grass.
Fibre: Sugar beet is added to the parlour cake to provide fibre to complement the lush spring grass.
Protein levels: As the proportion of grazed grass in the diet increases, the total protein in the cake is reduced to 14%. Quality, bypass protein, such as hipro soya is also included to work with the rumen degradable protein in grass. As the season dictates, when more silage is introduced to the diet, cake protein levels will be increased to about 16%, up to 18% at housing.
Mineral needs: The spring calvers get a standard, liquid cattle mineral through their water. The autumn calvers receive a readily absorbed, chelated mineral pack which promotes good fertility while service is underway during housing.