Dairy farmers can save £1000s with better grass management and utilisation, and many are already doing so following some simple changes to their systems. Piers Badnell, South-West Extension Officer for DairyCo, says improving grass use is a cheap and easy way to boost returns and cut input costs. He helped Castle Veterinary Services set up a grazing group with 10 farmers near Launceston, Cornwall, last year, and says they are enjoying some excellent results.
"It's all about using grass as part of your feeding system, leading to lower input costs and better quality grass leys," he says. "We've been concentrating on getting the grass managed well, to increase the energy content and reduce the need for buffer feeding."
Most members of the grazing group use feeder wagons and feed a lot of ensiled forage instead of grazed grass. But by understanding the quality and quantity of grass available, and factoring it into the ration, they have started to feed less concentrates and conserved forage, says Piers. "And by using DairyCo tools they now have a better understanding of the grass plant, and have drastically improved their grassland. Some will be able to increase their herd size as a result, which is a massive benefit."
Graham Duke and his son Lloyd joined the grazing group in February 2008, and have significantly reduced their input costs at Bridgetown Farm, Werrington, where they milk 200 cows. "We were looking at expanding the herd, so we took part in the DairyCo What If programme in January 2008," says Graham. "It was excellent as we were able to throw lots of ideas into the pot and see how to move forward."
One of the points raised was how to make better use of grazed grass. "We already grew a lot of our own crops to reduce input costs, but weren't really big grazers. And with the industry the way it is, we need to produce more from what we have on the farm." Having bought a plate meter, Lloyd and Graham started measuring grass growth and targeting it to the cows' needs. They moved from a strip-grazing system to a pasture-based rotation with back fencing to encourage rapid regrowth, and turn each 100-cow group into a four acre paddock for two days before moving them. "You have to be on the ball all the time." Following unexpected grass flushes they cut and silage selected paddocks to keep the rotation at the optimum growth stage.
"The big step forward was being brave in the spring - we were always a bit conservative and wanted grass growth ahead of the cows. But we got the cows out a lot earlier this year and are getting significantly more milk from grass." In April and May the cows were producing 15 litres of milk a day from grass, and were still getting 12 litres from grass in September. The low-yielding group of 100 cows have milked off grass all summer, and have received at least 1kg less parlour cake per day. "At £200/t that's a saving of £20/day over the past six months," says Graham.
Reseeding leys has boosted grass growth, and reduced fertiliser costs, he adds. "Our fertiliser bills have been cut dramatically." The grazing group meets every six weeks, and following some specialist advice, the Dukes also limed and salted one paddock this spring. "The cows never grazed that paddock very well, and yields always dipped when they were out on it - but this year they have grazed it well, with no reduction in yield. It is great to meet up with like-minded people and throw some ideas about - and it has had some excellent results."