Expert view - grazing strategies

Published 23 November 18

It’s been a challenging grazing year, but one to learn from. This year’s freak weather has emphasised the importance of having a Plan B for your farm to deal with extreme conditions and avoid being caught out by short supplies or high prices.

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Strategies based on accurate measuring and regular monitoring put you more in control of grazing management and better able to prevent and manage based on facts, not knee-jerk reactions. While this year’s grazing review should still include 2018’s figures, Livestock Improvement (LIC) grazing consultant Sean Chubb says planning based around the one in 100 years’ weather event is a waste of money.

Some people may now be tempted to stockpile six months of silage to feel safe, yet the cost is going to be high as more farms try to recover their silage reserves. Sean points out that while it is good to have some feed on hand, it’s better to calculate how much silage is required, rather than go by a gut feel based on risk aversion. “Six months’ silage is overkill. Have enough to get through an event, a contingency for a dry summer, and be able to buffer in a bad season,” he says.

“Lessons learned from this year are very important, however, and although you can’t control the weather, you can put a plan in place to mitigate risk. Even if this year was your first at paddock grazing, see it as ‘my worst case scenario’ and hope not to see it again within five years,” Sean explains.

“It’s been a pretty hard grazing season, with grass growth down on some farms by 2 – 4 tonnes of dry matter per hectate (tDM/ha), which is quite a significant drop. This has been tough financially, as herds have had a difficult winter, leaving them without feed reserves on hand and they’ve had to buy in more feed.”

Sean feels one key lesson from this year’s drought was in some situations, cows were put into higher covers to preserve moisture in the ground. Instead, more grass needed more water due to transpiration losses and this tactic simply lost quality. “In a drought, the grass plant just wants to put up a seedhead and farmers would have kept more quality grass in front of the cows if they had gone into lower covers,” he points out.

Graise Consulting’s Andre van Barneveld says cow condition remains good as herds have continued to feed over summer and he predicts no long-term damage to either fertility or grazing. However, some swards are more open after the drought and clients have broadcast clover and plantain to fill the gaps and avoid weed burdens next season.

“Measure how much you have grown and utilised and how far from the norm you are, then set up for spring 2019. Be more efficient with what you have this winter to minimise waste at feeding out, as well as focusing on early turnout,” says Andre. “Learn to be pro-active in decision making and predict to prevent a hit from hard weather events. Also learn the importance of measuring, monitoring and flexibility, and recognise the financial impact this season has had: what has that lost dry matter cost you?”

For Lydney Park herd manager Keith Davis, a drop of 20% in grass yield has cost the business £90,000 in buying 550t of maize plus 700t of grass silage and 1,000 big bales of hay for the 950 spring calvers. Dry-cow forage had to be fed to milking cows at 9.6 kgDM/cow/day, comprising 60% of their diet in July and August. As a result, milk yield dropped 10% because cows were eating 10.5 ME silage and not 12 ME grass. “Once they got back onto an all-grass diet, milk yield didn’t recover, so we will be 10% down on the whole lactation,” says Keith.

“Between June and October we only had 210 mm of rainfall, which is less than half our normal average. We grew 12 tDM/ha instead of 15 tDM/ha and have baled half the tonnage (1,000t) off-platform. In September we expected growth rates of 60 kgDM/ha/day and there was one week when we hit 100 kgDM/ha/day. But we averaged only 40kgDM/, even after the drought finished.”

Despite the lack of grass growth, grazing conditions have been perfect, if challenging, with no grass trampled in and Keith hopes that his grass utilisation calculation will be better than usual. “We target 85% and usually hit 80-85%,” he adds.

A further 300 t of forage will be needed to finish the winter. Cows might stay out until early December as ground conditions are good, which will save costs and maintain production. Yet the farm has made savings through using less fertiliser and making fewer silage cuts this year, which will offset some of the purchased feed cost: “We will still make profit at the end of this year,” he stresses.