Zero grazing is the cheapest feed source for dairy farmers Farmer Focus reports

27th June 2015

Robin Clements, Trillick, Co Tyrone Zero grazing plays role The effective utilisation of grazed grass is one of the main strengths of the Irish dairy industry and research has shown it to be the cheapest feed source for dairy farmers. However, farmers who have adopted zero-grazing techniques over recent years can in some instances see the benefits, especially if paddock infrastructure is not adequate.

Robin Clements, a Dairylink project farmer based outside Trillick in Co Tyrone is one such farmer who has been zero-grazing on and off over the past month with good results. Cutting at this time of the year offers the advantage that it leaves a very clean sward while the grass plant is going to seed.

Ground conditions

Wet weather poses a significant problem on the farm as when the heavy clay gets wet, the grazing herd can do significant damage to the land and dirty grass. Robin claims this damage can only be solved with a complete reseed in some cases if there is very bad poaching.

While still supporting the utilisation of grazed grass, Robin has been using his own zero-grazing machine over the past few years under these weather circumstances. This enables him to manage the grass with minimal damage when he is forced to bring the herd back inside.

Robin points out: “Ground conditions can change very fast on the farm and getting cows off the grazing platform – even for a few days – after heavy rain can really make a difference. In the past we always moved cows on to silage when they came indoors temporarily, but this change in diet always upset the herd, and was very dependent on silage quality.” In the South, many farmers would have high-quality round baled silage and the drop in milk solids is not as apparent.

Grass measurement

Grass is currently measured weekly on the farm and recorded on Agrinet, a web-based grass measurement tool. Maintaining good-quality grass in front of the herd is a priority on the farm and the grass measurement has provided Robin with key information to make decisions to help maintain this quality. Robin points out that when cows are housed for a week and grass growth averages 50kg DM/ha/day, grass supply will be ahead of demand when the cows return to grazing, resulting in longer, more mature, and consequently lower-quality grass. The benefit of the zero-grazing machine is that Robin can continue to remove grass from the grazing platform, while at the same time keep cows on a grass diet without them entering a paddock. At the same time, heavy machinery on land is not acceptable during very wet periods and while this might not be apparent in the short term, it can cause significant long-term damage. So striking a balance is important.

Stable herd performance

On a recent Dairylink visit, Robin’s cows had been indoors on zero-grazed grass for five days and had just returned to grazing that day, but herd performance had remained stable throughout the change. Daily production is currently 22 litres per day on 3kg of concentrate with butterfat at 4.11% and protein of 3.45%. Robin is convinced that maintaining grass quality ahead of the herd is the key to this good performance in late lactation.

“Getting a financial margin is difficult this year but we are trying to utilise grass on the farm. Currently we are getting 15kg of grass DM into cows daily, either grazed or brought to them with the zero-grazing machine. Cow condition has remained on target this year and we will be starting to dry off cows in July.”

Philip Donohoe, Kilnaleck, Co Cavan

Pre-cutting grass to maintain quality

Most dairy farmers have mixed feelings on pre-cutting grass in front of cows, with many viewing it as an additional expense, and an indication that conventional grazing has gone wrong on the farm. However, some view it as an opportunity to remove any stem which has developed in the sward and offer higher dry matter grass to cows at a small cost to the business.

Dairylink project farmer Philip Donohoe manages 160 cows and successfully uses pre-cutting every year to control grass quality on his farm, especially during the months with the highest grass growth – May and June.

Ideal conditions

Philip only pre-cuts grass on the farm when weather conditions are good. Dry weather is a prerequisite as when conditions are wet cows tend to contaminate the grass, resulting in poor utilisation. Philip uses a conventional mower with no conditioner for the job, and will pre-mow 24-hour paddocks in front the herd.

He comments: “We only pre-cut for one rotation per year and it usually starts in mid-June on the farm. No post topping is required on the grazing platform and the grass re-growth after pre-cutting is of excellent quality and cows always milk well when returned to the pre-cut paddock.”

Increasing DM intake is an additional advantage of pre-cutting for Philip, who is confident it provides an additional kilo of grass DM intake per cow. Currently the herd is producing 29 litres as a daily average milk yield and concentrate input is 4kg/cow on average. Philip estimates grass intake to be approximately 16kg DM/cow/day and cows are cleaning the paddocks very well.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the Irish Farmers Journal. Please click on the below Irish Farmers Journal logo to be brought to additional dairy articles

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