Grazing a profit driver

Published 30 April 09

All farmers are aware there is huge potential from grass in terms of nutrition, milk production and profits.  But it is not always easy to know what sort of targets to aim for in terms of energy and protein, and what is achievable in your area.

"Milk produced from grass is the cheapest form of production, but too few farmers take a proactive approach to managing their pasture," explains DairyCo extension officer Piers Badnell. "A little extra time spent in measuring growth rates and testing for dry matter, energy and protein content can boost margins by as much as 1.8p/litre."

To help farmers to see what is possible Mr Badnell has set up the Grass and Grazing Analysis Project.  The project measures the grass energy and protein levels fortnightly and growth rates weekly on eight farms across the UK, from Dumfries to Devon, and results are being posted on the DairyCo website. 

The farms that are participating in the project have been chosen as examples of excellent grassland management.  The aim is to demonstrate the potential of grazed grass, and show the difference that excellent management can make. 

The farms participating in the project measure growth rates using a rising plate meter once a week, and quality is tested every fortnight, at a cost of about £12/sample. Crude protein (CP), metabolisable energy (ME), growth rates (GR) and dry matter (DM) are recorded. "This means other producers can benchmark themselves and take steps to improve their own grassland, with the help of their local extension officer and grass+ publication," says Mr Badnell. 

"It's early days, but results so far for ME are higher than many would be expecting, at 11.5-12.6.  There is often a rise in ME in spring, but we're hoping to show over a period of several months that the range can be kept consistently at 11-12 throughout the year, this is because ME is one area where you can really have control irrespective of other factors. 

Kingshay figures for dairy herds yielding 7000-8000 litres/cow showed there is a saving of 1.8p/litre on purchased feed between the top 25% and bottom 25% in terms of milk from grazing.  The top quartile averaged almost 2300 litres from grass, while the bottom quartile achieved less than 500 litres, with a margin of just 17.5p/litre due to significantly higher feed costs.

"One of main problems with grass management can be the seasonal fluctuation in quality," says Mr Badnell, "but trials have shown that farmers can iron out these fluctuations and maintain high energy and protein levels throughout the season with good management."

"Farmers would never feed silage in the winter ration without some idea of its worth and we should be taking the same approach with grazed grass. Your management can have an effect on the level and persistence of ME and CP in grass, the only part of the analysis you can't control is the DM but these fluctuations can be managed if you know the DM range. If it has been raining for four or five days the DM is going to be mid-low teens, and if it has been good drying weather for a few days then it could be in the low 20s and this would give you an idea of DM intake potential."

Dry matter content typically ranges from 13-25%, depending on the weather. ME can fluctuate from 11-12, CP from 12-25%, and Neutral Detergent Fibre from 40% to 60% throughout the season. "However, with good management, producers can keep ME at 11.5-12, CP at 18-20%, and NDF at 45-50% all year round."

Not only does this mean farmers can have confidence in what their cows are eating, and reduce concentrates accordingly, they can also plan their field rotation to make the most of their pasture, says Mr Badnell.

One of the keys to good grassland management is knowing how ryegrass functions. The bottom 4cm of the plant is where the sugars are stored, and these are essential for fast growth and re-growth rates. Ideally producers should turn cows out to graze when the pasture reaches 2400-2800kg DM/ha, measured using a plate meter, and allocate sufficient pasture for them to graze it down to 1500kg DM/ha in one day. They should then move the cows to new pasture and allow the grazed field to recover.

"By grazing in this way, producers will keep their pasture at the optimum stage for rapid regrowth, as well as at target levels of ME and CP," says Mr Badnell. Splitting fields can be easily done using electric fencing, water availability is also essential, and tracks will provide better access and greater flexibility in grazing.

"It is possible for everyone to improve their grassland management and ensure they are getting as much milk from grass as possible," he adds. "The impact on your business in terms of moving from bottom to top quartile in milk from grazing in 150 cow/7500 litre herd could be as much as £20,000 based on 1.8p per litre purchase feed saving cost. There is a positive correlation between milk from grazing and milk from forage and profitability.

DairyCo is running a number of feeding+ grazing module meetings to help producers improve their grassland management. For more information visit www.dairyco.org.uk, or to order a copy of the updated grass+ manual call 01285 646510.