Farm focus: Making the switch from high input to extensive grazing
When Caroline Spencer returned to the family-run Volis Farm, Hestercombe, Somerset, in 2000 she faced a tough decision. Milking 140 cows with dated infrastructure on a tenanted farm, the future did not look promising.
She says: “We needed to invest in cubicles, silage facilities and machinery, and on a tenanted farm, the return on investment just was not there.”
However, having worked as a farm business consultant as well as on a dairy farm in New Zealand, Mrs Spencer was determined to find a solution. So, with the help of her dairy discussion group, she gradually switched to a cross-bred herd grazing all year round, with a tight spring-calving period.
There have, of course, been challenges along the way, but 14 years on she would not look back.
She says: “It had a big impact on profits in the early years but I would never change back – this is a lot simpler, more profitable and more sustainable, particularly when milk prices are fluctuating so much.”
Having been calving almost year-round, Mrs Spencer decided to buy some February-calving Holstein cows as a first step – which proved a total disaster.
“They are just not suited to an extended grazing system, so then we looked into cross-breeding.”
Back in 2001, there were not many cross-bred herds around, so Mrs Spencer decided to breed her own. She purchased some February-calving Jersey, Ayrshire and Friesian cows, as well as some Jersey semen and simply stopped serving the existing Holsteins to bring them into a tight-calving block.
“Fertility dropped sharply as the Holsteins were far less fertile being served in May on a grazing system and it took us a long time to get to where we are,” she says. “Now, there are lots of cross-bred, spring-calving herds about, so it would be much easier to do.”
Having fine-tuned the system over more than a decade, Mrs Spencer reckons the key to success is forward planning the grass year and the milking year so they dovetail perfectly.
Calves are born in February and fed ad-lib colostrum before moving to milk powder and weaner pellets. They graze from a month old and are weaned at eight to 10 weeks.
Mrs Spencer says: “They then just get grass until they calve themselves at two years old. If they are small we will house them in the first winter, otherwise they are out-wintered on grass and silage.”
Heifers are served using AI for three weeks at the end of April, with cows served for six weeks, using Jersey and New Zealand Friesian genetics.
“We like to use proven grassland genetics from small cows with high milk solids as we are on a cheese contract. They are also very fertile and naturally hardy.”
After this, Mrs Spencer introduces a team of Aberdeen-Angus bulls as sweepers, aiming for less than 10 per cent barren cows after 12 weeks service.
“We use tail paint and any heifers not served in the first seven days get hormone treatment. Cows which are not cycling a month before mating see the vet, who also looks at any problem or assisted cows before the breeding season.”
Animals failing to get pregnant within the timescale are culled. Mrs Spencer condition scores all the cows on November 1, and dries thin cows off early in order to boost condition at calving.
She says: “Cow condition at calving is key, so you have to work back from it. Anything old, problematic, or with a condition score of less than three is housed over the winter on silage, while the others are out-wintered, with heifers on grass with silage and cows on fodder beet with silage.”
Cows are brought into the calving shed when springing, with access to grass at least three hours a day, and ad-lib hay and silage. Heifers calve first to form the main milking group before older cows are introduced, and are run through the parlour and teat sprayed every day for a month before calving.
“This way, they are used to it and we do not have any problems at milking or with bulling.”
After calving, cows are kept in a colostrum herd for four days, and once they join the milking group they are grazed 24 hours a day with no silage.
“They just get a little bit of cake, providing there is enough grass. If you feed them silage, they get lazy and do not graze properly.
“On average, the milkers get 500-700kg of concentrates a year, but with the dry summer this year I was already halfway through my first cut by the end of August.”
Calving is done and dusted within 12 weeks - with 50 per cent calved by February 24, which is one of the reasons why the system works.
Mrs Spencer says: “Doing everything in blocks means you are totally focused on one job at a time; whether it is calving, feeding a dry cow, serving or heifer rearing, everyone is completely focused.
“We also dry them off in mid-December for six weeks so everyone gets a break.”
About 15 of the later-calvers are sold in-calf in April, providing a useful extra income stream. Bull calves are sold at Sedgemoor market.
“We sell some heifer calves and bulling heifers, so the farm is now providing an income for all three of us.”
Volis Farm is naturally dry, so while it is suited to out-wintering stock, it can get droughty over summer. Planning ahead to maximise grass growth and quality is essential. The year really starts in early October, when Mrs Spencer begins the last round of rotational grazing.
“The first fields we shut up become the first fields we graze in early February,” she says. “We make sure every part of the farm is grazed between October and the end of November to maximise grass quality, but it is absolutely critical not to overgraze as you will not have enough grass in the spring.”
Cow fertility and peak yields hinge on grass quality in the first three weeks of May, so it is vital to get it right.
A plate meter is an essential tool to ensure the whole farm averages 2,200kg/hectare (890kg/acre) of dry matter at the end of the grazing season in December.
“We have different growth targets during the year and some fields will be more or less as we rotate the grazing, but if the farm average drops less than that I know I need to start supplement feeding.”
From February, cows are moved on fresh pasture every 12 hours and will have completed one round of the farm by April, at which point they are moved every 24 hours throughout the summer before reverting to 12-hour grazing over autumn.
“The farm is set up for 24-hour paddock grazing, so we only use temporary fences for 12-hour rotations and to strip-graze the fodder beet.
We have two gates to every field so we can move the cows in wet weather without poaching, and have installed more water troughs and tracks as cow numbers have grown.”
Mrs Spencer spreads composted muck on the grassland, with dirty water used strategically during dry periods and slurry spread before fodder beet. She also regularly tests soil for macro- and micro-nutrients, and applies fertiliser little and often after each grazing.
She sows 4ha (10 acres) of fodder beet each year, as its high yield can support more cows than grass and silage alone.
“We make surplus grass into silage between May and July, which is either clamped or baled, and we place the bales in a line through the fodder beet so they are easy to unwrap and feed over winter.”
Over winter, cows get 50 per cent of their dry matter from fodder beet, with the remainder from silage and pasture. Compacted ground is relieved with a slitter aerator or sward lifter, and any grass which becomes poached or bare is reseeded using a harrow and seeder box. This year, Mrs Spencer is trialling drought-resistant grasses to extend the grazing season.
“We planted a mixture including chicory, plantain, red and white clover, sainfoin, bird’s-foot trefoil and herbs, which should grow better in dry periods and provide additional health benefits to cows.”