Early turnout - a farmer's experience

Published 27 February 15

Reducing reliance on bought-in feed, as well as stimulating the production of high-quality grass across the season, are two of the reasons the Dugdale family, who milk 400 New Zealand crossbreds near Yarm in North Yorkshire, have opted for an early turnout for the second year running.

Joe Dugdale describes the soil type at Crathorne Farms as heavy, high magnesium, silty, clay soil, and ‘ideal for poaching’. By using the cows to manage conditions, turnout for their autumn calving herd has been brought forward significantly. Thus reducing costs and increasing both DM yield/ha and utilisation.  

Last year, the cows at Crathorne Farms went out on 8 March and this year they went out to graze even earlier, on 17 February.

“We’ve been a crossbred herd since the eighties but, in the nineties, we started to chase yields and began to breed bigger cows,” says Joe. “In our autumn block calving system, fertility suffered and the block began to slip. Over the last 10 years, in order to rectify this, we’ve moved back to New Zealand breeding. Our cows are now one-third New Zealand Friesian, one-third New Zealand Jersey and a third another breed. At the moment that’s Norwegian Red.”

With early turnout they are aiming to achieve the following three key benefits: reduce reliance on bought in feed, stimulate grass growth early in the season without having to rely on sheep, and get grass down to the correct residual in order to set up the rotation well for the rest of the season.

“Cows are only out for two to three hours a day, in that time their dry matter intake is anywhere between 3.5 and 5kg. At the moment, we’re saving about £300 worth of bought-in feed per day, that’s a saving of about 75p/cow/day, just on concentrates,” says Joe. “That’s not taking into account what we’re saving on silage and reduced costs associated with housing.

“In today’s milk price climate, on those cost savings, you can afford to lose up to 3.5 litres per cow on early turnout and even losing 2 litres you’ll still be making money. In reality, we’ve lost very little yield from early turnout.”

Joe continues: “Last year, the cows came in on 5 November and we closed up at about 2,200kg DM/ha. The grass always looked healthy over the winter and cows went out onto a paddock with a cover of about 2,400kg DM/ha. The average farm cover at turnout was 2,250kg DM/ha.

“We can be flexible with on-off grazing, and even bring cows back inside if conditions really deteriorate. As they are all in calf, any changes in their diet will not have huge effects.

“Last year (April to April) we only achieved 2,700 litres from forage and by April 2015 we will be pushing 4,000 litres from forage. The vast majority of that increase will be from grazed grass, the cheapest form of feed,” says Joe.

Early turn out

Photo 1 The cows went out to graze on February 17 at Crathorne Farm

The infrastructure was already in place for early turnout. With last year’s experiences, Graham Bell, dairy foreman, and his team learnt to manage the pasture at this time of year, and opted for an even earlier turnout.

“Allocation is crucial,” according to Joe. “We start on a long rotation, 80 days, and allocate about 1.5ha, for our 400 cows. It does look pretty crowded, but cows will eat for a few hours and it’s after this, when they start messing about, that the damage is done. We make sure we take them off before they can cause problems. With livestock weights between 525kg and 550kg, the paddock looks like it’s had a cut from a fairly decent lawn mower when the cows come off.

“We decrease the length of the rotation as grass growth increases, and the season progresses. That’s where the spring grazing planner comes into its own, and we know exactly where we want to be on balance day.”

The team has had to balance the feed in the shed in order to make early turnout work and want the cows to go out reasonably hungry without sacrificing milk solids.

“You can see from our own samples, and those on Forage for Knowledge, that this early season grass is of high quality – dry matters are in the mid to high twenties and ME’s are 12MJ plus. 

Joe also strongly believes that grass grows grass. He feels that early turnout and the correct management of residues increase the amount of high-quality feed across the season.

“Our average DM yield for 2014 was 12t DM/ha and we utilised about 10 tonnes of that,” says Joe. “That’s about a tonne more than we grew in 2013, when we didn’t turn out early.

“It’s important to close up in the autumn at a suitable stage. We are prepared to sacrifice a bit of autumn grass if needs be as spring grass is worth so much more.”

Crathorne is a BGS/DairyCo Demonstration Partnership farm and they have been looking at alleviating soil compaction as part of the project.

“Regularly measuring grass growth means we can very quickly identify those pastures which are not performing,” says Joe. “We soil sample first to check indices and then dig a hole to check for compaction. We build a picture of the source of the problem and then sward lift or take other action, depending on what we’ve found. Anything we do to improve our soil costs money so we need to know exactly what we are dealing with.

“This year we know the targets we’re aiming for in areas such as covers, dry matter intakes and dry matter yield/ha, and this is helping us manage early turnout. We are saving costs, stimulating the grass growth in the early season and helping set up residuals going forwards,” Joe concludes.