Making use of your cheapest feed

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James Brown farms near Ballywalter in County Down. The farm has a mix of soil type with much of the grazing area clay or clay loam. His herd consists of around 170 Ayrshire cross cows.

While mainly spring calving, a third of the herd calve in the autumn. James has a real focus on using grazed grass and at current low milk prices significantly reduces production costs.

CAFRE Dairy Adviser Mark Scott recently visited the farm to find out more about how James manages his herd to maximise the potential of grazed grass.

MS - When do you start preparing for turnout?

JB - Preparation for turnout begins at the end of the previous season. The driest fields on the farm are closed up first to allow a little cover to build for carrying over the winter period. In the springtime the grass carried over on these fields has a surprising nutritional value and it can give a boost in milk composition as well as yield if the right cows are selected to graze it.

MS - What is the right cow in your view?

JB - Any cow can be managed to graze but if breeding a cow specifically for a grazing focus she needs to be around 500kg. This cow type minimises sward damage in early season and in my view maximises profit per hectare. If your cow is heavier, then in early season, simply graze a selection of lighter cows and first lactation animals until ground conditions improve.

MS - What is your target turnout date?

JB - The earlier the better. This will of course vary on each and every farm but it is good to push the boundaries for your own farm and attempt to get cows out earlier each year. Early March is a good target on this farm as it sits on a red clay base. If cows are out early they will graze tightly, meaning there will be more leaf and less stem for future rotations. Grazing the grass plant off in early season stimulates tillering and therefore improving the overall amount of grass grown. In this early season period it is important to put your grazing cows out hungry and once they stop grazing get them back in to avoid any sward damage.

MS - What grass covers would you target at turnout?

JB- It’s not really about a target cover at turnout, rather you should aim to firstly get some cows out as early as possible and secondly finish your first rotation as early as possible. This leaves the grazing block in the best position for the season ahead. Targets here with an early March turnout are to have grazed the entire grazing block by the third week in April. After this targets of 3000kg DM of grass per hectare for entry and 1500kg DM per hectare for exit with a 21 day rotation are reasonable.

MS - How much meal do you feed at grass?

JB - During the grazing season last year the herd average peaked at 28 litres (including the later lactation autumn calvers) with meal feeding peaking at 4kg per cow at that time. This equates to 19 litres per cow per day of milk from grass. Overall on average throughout the grazing season last year cows received 1kg per cow per day, if they don’t need it they don’t get it.

MS - How do you measure how much grass is there?

JB - Plate metering is the main method of measuring used on the farm, but once you get to know what different covers look like the plate meter can be used as a check now and then. As a first step for those not experienced with this type of grazing the main thing is to walk grazing fields simply to make a decision as to where cows should graze next and which fields will carry cows in early season.

MS - What other targets do you have for grazing management?

JB - If grass covers are in excess of 3000kg DM/ha don’t expect the cows to graze it off tightly and milk well. Once any field exceeds this grass cover flag it for baling but don’t let it grow on any longer than necessary to retain it within the rotation.

Don’t buffer feed with silage unless grass is in severe shortage because cows will either fill up before going out or will not graze properly knowing that silage is waiting for them at milking time. Doing this makes cows lazy grazers and they won’t graze out the sward.

MS - What other advice do you have for farmers who have lost confidence in grazing over the last number of years?

JB - Graze shorter, higher quality grass, the most common mistakes are not turning cows out until the whole farm is ready for grazing and asking cows to graze covers that are too heavy. If stem appears in the sward this is a problem, there is no milk in stem.

Soil test, pH is of paramount importance. When pH is correct you grow more grass and the sward makes optimum use of fertiliser. A sward low in pH will give as great a response to lime as to nitrogen fertiliser, and remember ground limestone is a cheap material.

Don’t let cows back graze, this is especially important when strip grazing. If cows are nipping off the young shoots for days after the initial grazing this again delays growth and upsets the overall rotation.

The biggest driver on the farm for getting cows out to grass is cost saving. Grass is 40% cheaper than silage and can have 10% more energy for milk production.


· Get a small number of cows turned out as early as possible to get the grazing rotation kicked off.

· Don’t put cows out after having filled up on silage or grazing will not work. Train cows to graze tightly from early season.

· In early season when cows stop grazing, remove them back to the house to minimise damage to the sward.

· Cut paddocks for baling rather than making cows eat lower quality grass.

· Keep a close eye on pH, lime is excellent value for money.

· Don’t let cows back graze.