On a mission to convert Border dairy farmers to the benefits of an extended grazing season

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Could a dairy farming philosophy developed on the grasslands of east Cork be as successful in the drumlins of Cavan?

hat question has been at the heart of grazing research trials in Ballyhaise Agricultural College since 2007.

And despite having notable success over the years in using the extended grazing model — developed at Teagasc Moorepark in Co Cork — on the Ballyhaise College dairy platform, it hasn’t been a straightforward process replicating a farm system from one  part of the country to another.

Donal Patton, who has been one of the driving forces behind the research, admits it has been an uphill task convincing farmers in Border region of its benefits.

“A lot of the farmers in this neck of the woods wouldn’t see it as that relevant to them,” he says.

“It’s a different climate, different soil type, longer winters and slower growth in spring and autumn. A lot of guys would look at what is going on in Cork and see it as a different world.”

Faced with this challenge, since 2017, Ballyhaise has been investigating whether the extended grazing season concept really stood up when compared to the typical dairy system in the Border, Midlands and West (BMW) region.

“This really was the trial we should have done first,” says Donal, explaining that the new research will directly compare what the average dairy farmer is doing in the region compared to the Moorepark extended grazing system.

In January 2017, 120 spring-calving dairy cows were randomly assigned to one of two grazing season lengths: ■ 205 days (March 15 to October 20) — the average for the region

■ 270 days (February 15 to November 20) — the extended grazing season model.

The trial is now in its final year, and Donal says the results are set to be conclusive. The main effect of extended grazing has been a reduction in feed costs with less concentrate and silage required.

The trial aimed to feed all groups a similar level of energy and protein intake each day. This meant that during early spring and late autumn, extra concentrate had to be fed to the groups in the shed to match what the other groups were getting in the paddock.

 

Costs

In addition to the extra concentrate fed, more silage had to be conserved to feed the cows for an extra 60 days indoors — a significant extra cost.

“We said we didn’t want to make a mess of the indoor system and wanted to feed the cows well as we can,” says Donal. “The grazing cows were getting 3-4kg of meal at grass over the period in the spring, while the cows indoors had to get a higher level of feeding in the parlour (7kg) and the protein level had to be higher.

“Over the year the difference could be 300-350kg of meal more to cows kept indoors till March.”

And because the ‘average’ herd in the region doesn’t go out until late March, there is a significant build-up of grass.

“We usually got 60pc of the area grazed, and then we just have to pull the pin and make silage. Covers have got outrageously heavy and this meant 30pc of the farm will be cut for silage without being grazed.

“That is the key difference in the spring. We don’t get the utilisation in terms of grazing. It’s the mower doing the harvesting, not the cows,” Donal says. On/off grazing has been critial to gaining extra days at grass, but were only counted as .5/day in the trial.

From an animal performance perspective, the extended grazing cows had better solids percentages and slightly higher milk solids per cow.

However, Donal says the differences are quite small and may not be significant at the end of the trial.

The trial also looked at the animal welfare aspect of extended grazing and included extra measurements on lameness, mastitis and SCC.

While the data has yet to be analysed, there are no obvious differences between the systems.

The results of the trial suggest that extending grazing from 205 to 265 days will increase profit per cow in the region of €150/cow or €2.50 per day at a base milk price of 30c/L.

But despite the profitability boost offered by extended grazing, Donal believes there are two key reasons why farmers in the region decide to keep cows indoors for longer.

“The number one reason cows don’t go out as they calve is poaching. Farmers fear they’re damaging the land and the effect that will have on subsequent grass growth. Maybe there’s also an element of the neighbours laughing at you as well if you have messy paddocks,” he says.

To address these concerns, Ballyhaise has a PhD student analysing the impact of poaching in the trial.

“I would have always said that while the paddocks may look messy at times in spring — and there is no point in saying they don’t — in real terms we are not doing any lasting damage.

“However, maybe there’s a problem at a lower level. We took the sod off the top of the soil and took core samples to see if we were doing damage at a lower level,” Donal says, noting that the results have yet to be analysed.

The second big concern for farmers is the fear of running out of grass.

“I’d see discussion groups coming in to talk to us and there would generally be no debate with how we manage the farm during the summer, but in the spring there is a lot of debate around the amount of damage we are doing and concern we going to run out of grass,” he says.

He adds that some people can’t get their heads around why they are putting out the cows in February and might have to feed some silage in April. Donal says this is where grass measurement comes into its own as it gives farmers the confidence to know where they stand in terms of the supply and demand of grass.

One valid concern farmers may have is if there is more work involved in having the cows at grass for longer.

“It depends who you ask,” he says. “There are some farmers who can’t wait to get the cows out. Usually they have a good infrastructure and see the benefits in terms of costs and performance.

“Others have a great indoor set-up and think it’s too much hassle to put cows out in tough weather conditions. And it is a hassle if you haven’t got the infrastructure in place.

“Extended grazing or not, every dairy farmer needs to have adequate winter facilities, but you shouldn’t be using them just because you have them.”

 

 

‘See what works on your farm – if you can gain 10 or 15 days a year, it’s worth doing’

While the benefits of extending the grazing season are seen in the spring and autumn, much of the work involved in making it happen takes place over the summer months.

“Lads come to us or go to farm walks in the spring where cows are out, and they are trying to figure out how the hell are they doing this,” says Donal Patton.

“But it’s only partly to do what’s happening in February and March. It’s more to do with what went on in June and July.”

Donal has six key tips for farmers looking to extend their grazing season:

 

1 Join a discussion group

“Farmers might say ‘well that’s okay for an ag college — it’s different when I go home’ and that’s why seeing local farmers do it too can give them great confidence. Identify a farmer locally that is doing it and make contact,” he says.

 

2 Grass measuring

Donal stresses the importance of grass measuring to farmers trying to get cows out early in the spring.

“One of the big fears is running out of grass in the spring,” he says.

“It takes 2-3 seasons to fully get your head around it, particularly in the spring and autumn. There are courses running at the moment.”

 

3 Infrastructure

Good grazing infrastructure, particularly farm roadways, are essential to extending the grazing season.

“We have a very good network of farm roadways in the college that we built up over a period of 10-12 years,” says Donal.

“Often in June and July, farmers forget the issues of early spring in terms of accessing land. So that day in March when you’re saying to yourself ‘I need a roadway here or there’, put it into you’re diary to get it done over the summer.”

 

4 Soil fertility

Donal has seen farmers try to emulate the system in Ballyhaise on land with poor fertility. The results have been bad.

“A lot of farmers would have seen paddocks that they have poached not recover. A lot of that could be down to soil fertility,” he says.

“On top of that, the grass they graze in early spring doesn’t recover and they run short. If you don’t know the status of the farm get it tested. Soil fertility is vital.”

 

5 On/off grazing

The importance of this practice cannot be overstated.

“Of those 60 extra days we got in the trial, I would say half of them were on/off grazing,” Donal says.

 

6 Patience

Donal advises farmers not try to move too fast in trying to get cows out earlier.

“Don’t push turnout from Paddy’s Day to early February all of a sudden. See what works on your farm.

“If a farm can gain 10-15 days a year it’s worth doing,” he says.

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