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Cold weather impacts on grass growth

With grass growth accelerating, Attleborough-based dairy farmer Ben Walker of J. and J. Salter is aiming to capitalise on fresh forage to support the autumn calving 160-cow herd, having had to feed more concentrate than he would like due to a cold start to the grazing season.

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He says: “Having turned out the first 80 cows confirmed in-calf in mid-February we were effectively a month behind getting all cows out day and night due to the frosts which continued into April.”

 

Farm records show the cold weather effectively halved early season growth for February to April, but this is changing quickly. Warm weather in mid-April lifted average daily grass growth rate to 73.7kg DM per hectare (29.83kg/acre) and average cover on the grazing platform to 2315kg DM/ha.

 

“Quality is good at 28.7 per cent protein, 12.7 per cent ME and 19.8 per cent dry matter when sampled in early April. Cows are now completing a grazing round in 18 days with all the herd now out 24 hours a day. To support growth we have applied a third dose of nitrogen to the grazing area at 160kg/ha urea,” he said.

 

The most recent challenge has been to manage the transition from a total mixed ration diet to a predominately grass-based ration without hitting production for the last group to be turned out.

 

Mr Walker says: “I have kept this group in at night for a week longer than usual to give them more time to adjust. The herd is milking well, averaging 33 litres/cow at 3.86 per cent butterfat and 3.17 per cent protein. That is not bad considering cows have been calved for between five and seven months.”

 

Production has been supported by greater use of concentrate than would be preferred but little could be done about the impact of the weather. However, there is a focus to ensure some of the extra feed cost is offset by maximising the quality of grass through the grazing season.

 

Bridge repairs are underway and more fences are being installed to ensure access to pasture is improved. An eye is also being kept on the 28ha (69 acres) shut up at the far end of the grazing platform for first cut silage. Mr Walkers says: “It is looking really well with a cover in excess of 4,500kg/ha DM. We aim to cut it in mid-May.”

 

Meanwhile, Mr Walker’s brother Tim, who looks after the arable side of the business, is busy planting this year’s maize crop, with 7.86ha (19 acres) of Hobbit, 6.54ha (16 acres) of Atrium and 14.98ha (37 acres) of AlfaSta, having been selected according to soil type which varies from heavy clay to sands. Seedbeds are relatively dry, so showers will be appreciated thereafter.

 

Other activities include a final scan to select cows to be drafted out of the herd. The business has sufficient replacement in-calf heifers and these were turned out in mid-April on to 17.8ha (44 acres) of rented ground allowing all close-by land to be used by the milking herd.

 

Investment in infrastructure can pay in the long-term

The slightly reduced grass growths we have seen this spring in many areas means, potentially, lower covers, says Piers Badnell, DairyCo extension officer. This may mean having to supplement to a higher level and possibly longer, like Mr Walker, but it does mean hitting good residuals will be easier, which is important to achieve in the first two grazing rounds.

 

However, higher temperatures in the last week or so has seen growth accelerate fast, quickly pushing ahead of the six-year average for the Forage for Knowledge farms. Things can happen fast at this time of year, so Mr Badnell says it is important to be on top of it to maximise quality and quantity through the season.

 

As Mr Walker is demonstrating, a good infrastructure plays a vital role in pasture usage. Getting cows out earlier in the grazing season and having them out for longer saves on feeding costs and reduces housing costs.

 

You need to be looking at three key areas: tracks, water and fencing. There is a cost to install and maintain the infrastructure but it is far cheaper than installing and maintaining buildings.

Tracks

A well-planned track layout allows the most efficient use of grazing by providing access to all necessary areas while minimising damage to pastures. It is therefore important to carefully consider the composition, condition and length of any track used to move cattle from farm to grazing as there is plenty of evidence to suggest the quality and type of surface, together with the speed and manner in which the cows are herded, has a significant impact on foot health.

 

For 200 cows you will need a five-metre (16ft) track, of which four metres (13ft) is surfaced, with an extra metre (3ft 3in) for every additional 100 cows. A variety of materials may be used to construct a track, but the surface should not consist of sharp stones, rubble or gravel, even though these materials may be used in the construction of the track base. To avoid damage, they need to be cambered.

 

Make gates the same width as the track so they can be swung across to guide stock in. Consider a single strand wire or coil spring type wire gate as a cheap alternative to field gates.

Water

Adequate provision of water is essential in a dairy system. Any restriction in water supply will have an immediate effect on milk yield.

 

Ideally, cows should not have to walk more than 100m (328ft) to drink. Place troughs in the middle of fields allowing enough room for cows to drink at the same time, while the boss cow does not hog the trough.

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