Review herd performance

1st August 2015

Review herd performance

All farmers should be assessing their own individual feed plans in order to establish whether cows are maximising grass utilisation.

All farmers should be assessing their own individual feed plans to establish whether cows are maximising grass utilisation, if parlours are allocating the correct level of concentrate and whether cow body condition is on target for the herd.

Low quality grass not managed correctly from the start of the grazing season cannot be expected to produce any significant quantity of milk.

Getting grass management correct is paramount at this time of the year and, where necessary, paddocks that have gone too far for grazing should be removed from the rotation for silage as bales, or clamped if it coincides with silage-making on the farm. Mowing this grass will remove the hard stem and allow higher quality regrowth to emerge. It will also create a short-term increase in stocking density on the block, which will allow the cows to maintain grass quality on the remaining area.

Grazing targets

Targeting a pre-grazing cover of 3,000kg/ha (1,500kg/ha available) is the initial challenge farmers face, followed by getting it grazed down to 1,600kg to 1,650kg/ha (100kg to 150kg/ha available) residual cover.

Achieving this guarantees that cows are grazing top quality material and ensures paddocks will be cleared correctly to allow top quality re-growth for the next rotation.

For farmers not measuring grass, a simple welly boot guide can be used to help target this. However, developing a grass wedge with the paddocks on your grazing platform is a better method.

The wedge will include paddocks with grass covers from 3,000kg/ha (1,500kg available) at the top end, and drop down to 1,500kg/ha (0kg available) at the lower end of the wedge. This is the ultimate way to manage grass and by getting the wedge established at the start of the season. Updating the wedge weekly with grass cover measurement will allow for better grass utilisation on your farm.

Setting up the parlour

Allocating concentrate when cows are grazing is a balancing act between getting good utilisation from the grazed grass, while at the same time ensuring that individual cow nutritional requirements are being met.

When it comes to overfeeding of concentrate to cows, it will be difficult to achieve maximum utilisation of grass, which has the potential knock-on effect of a general deterioration in grass quality as the grazing season progresses. On the other hand, expecting grass to sustain high levels of milk production without supplementary feeding can result in excessive body condition loss across the herd.

Many of the systems are now based on a maintenance plus (M+) calculation. This allows parlour feeding to be set up to enable the grazed grass to deliver a specific yield on top of cow maintenance after which concentrate feeding can be used to supplement those cows yielding more than the M+ figure.

Usually, the concentrate is fed at a rate of 0.45kg/litre above M+, which is supported by recent research on improving concentrate feeding and grazing strategies conducted by Agrisearch NI. This research suggests that 0.45kg/litre is the optimum supplementation level in terms of both nutritional and financial performance. Maintenance is normally set at between 15 and 18 litres per day.

Cow body condition

The feeding plan for any dairy herd must hinge around cow body condition, which should be assessed on a regular basis on all farms. In the case of block calving herds either in the spring or in the autumn, feeding these cows and monitoring body condition can be easier as all cows are at a similar stage in lactation, where basic flat-rate concentrate feeding can be very effective. However, herds with a spread calving profile with cows at different stages in lactation can be difficult to efficiently target supplementary feed. The farmer focus section looks at how one Dairylink farmer addresses this issue.

Kevin McGrade, Dromore, Co Tyrone

Given the current financial pressure on dairy farms across the country, one Dairylink farmer has made some changes to his herd management to ensure that he stays in business. Kevin manages 125 cows and has removed concentrate feeding over the past three months. Cows are autumn-calving on the farm and, therefore, are currently in late lactation.

At the moment, Kevin has 60 cows in milk. Nonetheless, he has never before completely removed meal feeding from the herd. From a financial point of view, has he saved much? Traditionally, Kevin fed 2kg/head in May and June, and then moved to 1kg/head in July, and this would have been dispensed on a feed-to-yield system through the parlour. Calculating the saving over the three months in question, using Kevin’s meal purchase price he will have saved £4,000 in concentrate cost.

At a time when cashflow is restricted on the farm, this small step has helped in these particular months. In terms of herd performance, milk yield and solids have been maintained with average yield for the herd at 19 litres per day and 1.39kg milk solids over the three-month period. Good grass utilisation and weather conditions have helped to achieve this on the farm. Cow condition has been maintained and is in line for drying cows off. Grazed grass utilisation has improved on the farm with less area removed for silage from the grazing platform than any other year. The only downside to Kevin’s approach is getting the cows into the milking parlour without feeding meal.

Kevin says: “From a financial perspective, I can’t see the justification for feeding concentrate to my cows; milk prices are simply too low. My cow type allows me to take full advantage of grass on the farm and, if milk price improves, I will introduce some concentrate.” Kevin made some round-bale silage last weekend but he still has some more second-cut silage to make. Excessive rainfall for the last few days has made grazing more difficult and grass quality is not as good.

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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