A Gloucestershire dairy farmer relies on a low-cost system which treats the herd as if it were one cow, in order to maintain a profitable business. Wendy Short reports.
Key elements of the policy at Leaze Farm, Lechlade, are autumn block-calving and a high inclusion of maize in the self-feed forage diet.
Andrew Stevens milks 330 cows in one group at the home farm, as well as having two additional herds in the region. All are managed using the same principles, many of which date back to a visit to New Zealand by his late father, David, in the 1960s, as part of a Nuffield scholarship.
At Leaze about 80 per cent of the New Zealand-type Friesians are block-calved in a six-week period in autumn to allow the whole herd to be managed as one cow. The only two crops which are grown are grass and maize, with production averaging 7,000 litres/cow at 4.4 per cent butterfat, 3.6 per cent protein
Despite being 40 years old, the cow kennels are in good condition and have sand bedding, while the passages are scraped out twice daily. Housed cattle have access to an outdoor area with the choice of three forage clamps. Two contain maize, layered with rapemeal, while the third is grass silage, layered with milled wheat. Concentrates, fed at a flat-rate in the parlour, contain twice the standard level of vitamins and minerals, to compensate for any deficiency in the straights added to the forage.
Mr Stevens says: “The maize provides starch and the rapemeal is high in protein, which makes the two ingredients a good match. Meanwhile, the high protein grass silage is complemented by the high starch rolled wheat, so the two forages are balanced.
“The self-feed system takes only about 10 to 15 minutes a day to look after; it is just a matter of unscrewing the wire insulators on each clamp, moving the electric wire and forking down any overhang. In general, the cows prefer the maize clamps, mainly because it is physically easier for them to eat. However, they also like the grass silage mix and go through the clamp faces at a rate of about six or seven inches a day. We work out how much each wire needs to move, for the cows to receive 15kg fresh weight of grass silage; the maize is fed to appetite.”
The maize is drilled in late April and this season took 1.5 days to harvest, although 2015 was a difficult year, with harvest split in half over 10 days, largely due to the acceleration of ripening caused by drought stress.
“I would describe maize as a ‘superfood’ for dairy cows,” says Mr Stevens. “Its greatest asset is its consistency and repeatability; a feature which is harder to achieve with grass silage. On this farm maize costs a similar amount to produce, per dry matter tonne, as first cut silage. It also provides us with an opportunity to utilise the full value of slurry accumulated over winter.
“The land at Leaze farm is a silty clay loam over Thames gravel and is prone to drought, although it is easily worked and the area is good for maize growing. We choose later varieties, as they are high-yielding, and sow when the soil temperature reaches 10degC, aiming to harvest by the end of September at about 30 per cent dry matter. After slurry-spreading, the land is ploughed, then pressed as soon as possible, to limit ammonia losses. Before planting, shallow cultivation is used, to produce a fine seedbed and minimise any loss of moisture.
“Drilling is followed by a pass with a light ring-roller, to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. We apply a pre-emergence herbicide, then later a post-emergence herbicide, when target weeds re-emerge. The crop is monitored for problem weeds such as thistles and field bindweed, with samples taken as harvest approaches, to give a prediction of cutting date, so contractors can be booked.
“After harvest, the Maize Growers Association has recommended its members to sow a cover crop behind the maize and we have been following this advice for several years. It leaves winter cover, which is better for the environment due to reduced leaching and soil erosion. The barley is sprayed off and ploughed in as green manure in spring.”
The target is to take just one cut of grass in late May, to take advantage of the spring flush and to reduce contractor costs. All of the animals are in late lactation from turnout, when a paddock grazing system is adopted. The goal is to supply enough grazed grass throughout summer, to avoid the need to feed conserved forage over summer.
“The grazing block has a central access track and is split into six-acre paddocks,” says Mr Stevens. “Each one is grazed for one-and-a-half days, with the cows returning to the first paddock after about 35 days. Some producers on New Zealand systems use a plate meter to measure grass dry matters, but we know the paddocks well enough to be able to monitor growth and consumption by eye.”
For the past six years, heifers have been reared by a neighbouring farmer, who has gone out of milk. He charges a day rate and receives a bonus for each animal which has calved by the end of September. They leave at 12 weeks old and return to the main herd a month before calving at two years old.
“This year, 80 out of the 92 heifers hit the September target and all were returned in-calf,” says Mr Stevens. “They are cubicle-trained while they are away and introduced to self-feed forage; the most effective technique is to start them off eating under the wire and then drop the height, so they learn to take food from above it.
“Our available replacement rate is high at 28 per cent, due to the greater requirement for a closed herd with TB, but this also permits late-calving heifers and cows to be sold in-calf, if TB removals are minimal. About 50 per cent of all animals leaving the farm will be sold as in-calf, with the herd having reached its 330-head capacity, by the end of October.
Practices tend to come full circle in farming and there has been a resurgence of interest in the system in operation on Mr Stevens’ unit.
“Running the cows as one group, treated as one cow, simplifies management and allows us to focus on one main task at a time,” says Mr Stevens.
:It is a simple system we like and if you believe in your methods, you stand a better chance of making them work, rather than following a trend.
“We have no plans for change, apart from perhaps increasing herd size. We would also like to marginally improve milk yields, although we feel it would be a mistake to push the cows too hard.”