Keeping 880 cows on a grass-based system and milking them once a day, is far more enjoyable and makes more money, than having half the number of cows and milking them three, or even two times a day.

10% of the original Holstein cows have earned their right to stay in the herd by being fertile

10% of the original Holstein cows have earned their right to stay in the herd by being fertile.

So says Gavin Green – and he should know. He, with Lydney Park Estate herds’ manager Keith Davis and their staff have switched practically overnight from a high input/high output system, to one that focuses on maximising milk production/ha.

And to do this they have had to become obsessive about their grass and how they graze it!

“In 2007 we were milking 420 cows three times a day and achieving 9,50 litres per cow or more,” Gavin explained at a farm walk this week organised by the British Grassland Society, DairyCo and RABDF, on the west bank of the River Severn in Gloucestershire in the Royal Forest of Dean.

“We were ticking all the boxes, but not making any money. It was a slog to break even. Something had to change.”

The team considered going organic but stumbled upon the idea for low output/low cost grazing in the process. On paper, the figures looked so positive the decision was made with the landlord, to go for it.

First time grazers

That autumn the farm was reseeded with long-term late-heading diploid perennial ryegrass/white clover leys and the high performing Holstein cows, which had been always been fully housed, were turned out to graze for very the first time.

“They turned around to us as if to say – yes lovely carpet but where’s the food?” said Gavin.

Late-heading perennial ryegrass/clover swards are still performing well eight years after sowing.

Late-heading perennial ryegrass/clover swards are still performing well eight years after sowing.

The sudden transition was not easy and yields and income fell, so the priority then was to drive out all unnecessary costs in the business. This was helped by dramatic improvement in fertility and replacement rates, a significant drop in lameness and reduced vet bills. Yields now average around 4,000 litres milk (4.7% fat: 3.7% protein) per cow and the milk is sold to Wyke Farms to make cheddar cheese.

Bought-in feed is kept to a minimum – aiming for 200-250kg per cow this year, fed every other day, really just to tempt the cows into the parlour.

New Zealand Friesian X Jersey genetics were introduced to produce cows more suited to the system – although 10% of the most fertile Holstein cows from the original herd remain – but they do have to go round the 32-point rotary parlour twice to milk out!

The two herds, which are managed identically but as separate units by herdsmen Tim Thompson and Pawel Wegelewski, are an unusual mixture of tall and white and black and short cows!

The cows calve in a tight block in spring – currently over 11 weeks, with the aim of reducing this down to nine.

Grass is the driver

Grass drives this enterprise now and is measured and monitored to maximise its growth and utilisation.

The paddocks are measured weekly and the data used to produce graphs, which inform all the grassland management decisions.

The paddocks are measured weekly and the data used to produce graphs, which inform all the grassland management decisions.

The land is low-lying at, or below, sea-level depending on the Severn tides. Described as ‘goey and stiff’ when wet, and as ‘hard as kerb stones’ when dry – the silty clay loam is not ideal for extended grazing. But careful and flexible management allows the cows to be out grazing from early February as they calve, until November or early December (21-day rotation from start of April). While poaching can be a problem in early spring and late autumn, the moisture retentive soil keeps the grass growing in dry summers. Annual rainfall is 100cm (40 inches).

Stone tracks lead the cows out to 24-hour paddocks and each herd is milked through the same parlour, at different times of the day. Stocking rates on the milking platforms are around 3.7 cows/ha and 2.5 cow/ha over the whole farm. Short-term Italian ryegrass leys are cut for silage for winter feed, along with any surplus grazing grass.

All the fields are measured with a platemeter weekly and the figures entered into the AgriNet computer program. A grazing wedge graph shows the paddocks the cows should visit next, and whether there will be a deficit or a surplus of grass in the near future.

The program also highlights poor performing fields that require attention. For example, one field that had dropped to 10t DM/ha over the year increased its output to 16t DM/ha after it was reseeded. In a system that is so dependent on grass, this extra tonnage really matters and highlights the power of reseeding.

“There may be intensive units out there that are making money, but we are happier with this system – it is more enjoyable working with the elements and the seasons, rather than doing the same job day in day out, all year round,” said Gavin.

“We also have a greater buffer against volatile milk prices, and I don’t have to lie awake at night worrying what the price of soya will be in six month’s time.

“Our main exposure now is to nitrogen fertiliser prices. We apply 250kg/ha, so if the price doubles then that will really affect our margin. But the rest of our costs are fixed, known and contained.

“It was a big switch – but it has been worth it and we won’t be going back. The aim is to reach 1100 cows and a stocking rate of 3.6 cows/ha across the whole enterprise; then we will spend time fine-tuning the operation. From now on our core business will be growing grass and that will drive everything else that we do.”

The cows graze down to 1500kg DM/ha, which maximises grass utilisation and encourages quality re-growth.

The cows graze down to 1500kg DM/ha, which maximises grass utilisation and encourages quality re-growth.

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