Tracks and water

Published 15 March 13

Last summer's extremely wet conditions demonstrated just how valuable good cow tracks and infrastructure are, says DairyCo Extension Officer Piers Badnell.  

For some farmers it meant they were able to graze throughout the summer, with reduced pasture damage, and at times when parts of the grazing platform were under water.

Cows that are out at grass longer, on well managed grazing, have more access to the cheapest feed, at a consistently high feed value (metabolic  energy (ME ) of 12, 25% crude protein (CP) and dry matter (DM) of 15-25% depending on the weather), making you more money.

Having the cows out grazing more means less reliance on ensiled forage. Silage costs two to three times more than grazed grass and add to that the potential to save on bought in feeds, straights or concentrate, and the figures soon add up.

Getting cows out earlier in the grazing season and having them out for longer not only saves on feeding costs but reduces housing costs (calculated as between £0.54 and £1.71 per day depending on your system) and saves you time.

With cows out grazing it might mean one less load in the mixer wagon and that can easily save 30 to 45 minutes a day! You may spend more time moving electric fences but this is time you would have spent on the yard and it's saving you money!

You need to be looking at three key areas, tracks, water and fencing. There is a cost to install and then maintain the infrastructure but it is far cheaper than installing and maintaining buildings.

There is a whole area on better accessing your pasture on the DairyCo website.
 

Download a copy of the DairyCo Cow tracks booklet.
 

Watch a short clip on cow track cost and construction.

Tracks

  • Good cow tracks primarily allow early and late access to pasture and good access to heavier ground throughout the year.
  • Multiple entry and exit points to paddocks minimise damage to swards.
  • Tracks need to be in place for the heavy usage areas like near the buildings but also at the far ends of the grazing block and in certain conditions or certain soils you may get away with no material track just a grass sacrifice track.
  • Tracks should give you maximum access for the least cost so flexibility is the key.
  • You need to decide if your track is going to be for the tractor or for the cows  - cow track is half the cost so keep machinery off it!

The main materials used for cow track construction are building rubble, stone and concrete railway sleepers. The tracks need a camber to drain water off swiftly as water flow will ruin them very quickly. Watch where flow is running and avoid runoff to water courses.

For 200 cows you will need a 5m width of track and an extra 1m for every 100 cows, but beware of bottle necks, for instance a tight turn or a narrow bridge which will restrict cow flow.

When it comes to positioning tracks you need maximum access for least cost, so get a map of your farm or look at google earth and plan your tracks. Go and look at other peoples' tracks to get tips on what to do and what not to do!

Water

  • Water troughs need to be in the middle of fields to give maximum access to water, using electric fencing and clever allocation.
  • Don't site them in the hedge where water access is restricted and there is no flexibility.
  • Don't worry about silaging and troughs in the middle of field. If the mower man can't mow round a water trough get a new mower man!
  • The most important thing is the cow and her access to water. 
  • Milk consists mostly of water so why would you want to restrict her?
  • Check water flow and trough volume so cows do not run out of water.
  • Ideally cows should not have to walk more than 100 metres to drink.
  • There needs to be enough room for a good number of cows to drink at the same time, so that the boss cow does not hog the trough.


David Williams farms in North Wales and when his herd went to once a day milking in 2011 there was only a 10% drop in yield. He thinks improving water facilities in grazing paddocks was key to this.

"I think there were several reasons why we never experienced the drop in output associated with going OAD," David explains. "The percentage of heifers entering the herd was low that first year of OAD and I do think the maturity of the cows in the herd was important as there were less than 38% first and second lactation animals in the herd. We had also upgraded the water supply to key grazing paddocks. I think it shows what an important role water plays in milk production."

Fencing

  • The best fencing is semi permanent wooden stakes with high tensile wire and sub divisions with normal electric fencing.
  • Some farmers do use just electric fencing successfully.
  • Try and make the areas as square as possible as cows will wonder less and on heavy land cause less treading and potential soil damage.
  • The key to good fencing is flexibility.