Friday, 19 February 2010

Winter Kill on Dairy Pastures has been Costly

Have you turned cows out onto pasture yet or are you looking out on either snow covered or sodden soils.
Not only are some soils still very wet but the soil temperatures across the UK, Northern Ireland & Brittany in France are all below average for this time of year. Soil temps are between 2 & 4 degrees C when they are often 5-6 degrees C by now.
Whatever your situation you need to do a farm walk & not only measure the grass but assess how the pastures look. The winter kill caused by frost & snow damage has been substantial on many UK dairy farms this winter. Some dismiss winter kill as an inevitable consequence of winter frosts & wind.
However as everyone starts to measure the pasture covers now....we are starting to get some idea of the magnitude of the losses. Many farms are reporting average pasture covers this spring that are 3-400kgs DM/ha less than the closing covers last autumn. A bale of silage is approx 200 kgs DM. So some farms have lost the equivalent of two bales of silage per hectare. This is approx £20-50 per a farm loss of feed amounting to say £3000-7500. No small loss! .
Most of the damage was caused by the January snow & the cold spell where frosts were common in most areas of the UK. Older pastures (low fertility species) & those not recently fertilized with nitrogen seem to be more susceptible.
Many pastures on organic farms seem relatively unscathed compared to their conventional neighbours (maybe the soil N is high due to summer clover N).
Winter kill is a mix of physical damage mainly to older leaves & some fungal or mould development which seems to kill off the leaves. The roots & crowns seem to recover. Pastures less affected are just showing the "purpling colour" of frost damage.
So how bad is the damage? Pasture plate meter readings at the end of autumn 2009 on many farms were very high. Instead of the normal 2000-2100 kgs DM per hectare average farm cover, some farms had say 2500 average with individual paddocks well above 2800kgs. These are the pastures that appear most affected by winter kill. Many of the farms that are being monitored regularly were the ones with extraordinary covers in November. Why? Do we have short memories about winter kill of pastures? Was the money invested in monitoring during the year completely lost when you assess the pasture DM losses due to winter kill? Or did these farms take their eyes off the ball not fully realising the potential for losses?
What do you need to do now? I think the worse affected fields need to be grazed asap with either stale cows or dry cows.
It's not great feed but it is better to be grazed early. A grazing minimises the plant disease risks & then allows N fertilizer or muck to be applied depending on your NVZ status. The worst affected pastures may need reseeding but let's hold off on that decision until you view the recovery after grazing.
What are the lessons?
Graze all fields at least once after the first week of October.
Aim to close grazing with an average cover of between 2-2100 with the longest pastures not exceeding 2600 kgs DM/ha.
Don't use grazing recipes taken from a different country with a different winter climate. i.e. a third of the farm must be grazed by a certain date etc. etc.
Use N as late as you are allowed (NVZs) to get good fresh growth in late autumn & to take advantage of any "anti Freeze" affects of N fertilizer.
It's important to get good residuals i.e.1500 on that last grazing....often this is difficult if it turns wet.
I guess this experience this year does also questions the need for a pasture wedge after the last grazing? It's not common practice on some of the best farms in Brittany!
What do you think?
Don't try to use a plate meter to plan & arrange grazing management until say mid March. The plate readings are usually very unreliable!
Instead use the 'Spring Rotation Planner' a highly effective but very simple excel spreadsheet. If you don't have a copy email me.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Dairy Calf Rearing is Possibly the Most Important Task on a Dairyfarm

Calf rearing is possibly the single most important job to get right on a grass based dairy farm. The reason I say that is that young stock or heifer rearing is potentially the real wealth creator on a dairy farm.
Assuming that there is a tight block calving (9-12 weeks) & that empty rates are controlled below 10%.....surplus heifer calves can either be used to grow the business, improve the herd quality or be sold for cash. A successful heifer rearing unit on a grass based dairy farm can grow wealth in a very similar way to compound interest.
It is effectively Dairy Compound Interest. (DCI....a new piece of jargon!). The second reason I think calf rearing is so important is that there is very good evidence that the weaning weight has a huge influence on heifer weights at mating & at first calving.The Heifer Liveweight Targets need to be set at 90% of mature cow liveweight at first calving. Calves that struggle during the milk feeding stage prior to weaning seem to struggle up to 15 months & often calve down under weight.These heifers then under produce in the first lactation as they are still growing....the risk of not getting back in calf is substantial.
Heifer calves must be weaned on weight NOT age. If you dont have scales then use a weigh band which are reasonably accurate up to 4-5 months of age.
Jersey calves should be weaned at 70-80kgs, XBred at 85-90kgs & Friesians at 95-100kgs.

New born calves must get good quality colostrum within the first 12 hours of birth. There is a very good argument for block calving herds to individually feed new borns that colostrum to make sure they get it. What ever milk feeding system you use it needs to focus on ensuring the calf gets a consistent intake of high quality milk solids(energy).If you are feeding fresh milk one option is to fortify the liquid with milk powder.

The second priority is to feed good quality roughage (straw or hay) to encourage the rumen to develop before weaning. The calves will nibble away at straw virtually from day one just as they will eat a dry calf feed in addition to the liquid milk. This is essential to negate any set back at weaning.

Ofcourse good quality housing, clean bedding,access to fresh water, no draughts but good ventilation are all part of successful calf rearing. The real issue is not at the start of calving as everything is clean & only recently set up...the real problems often occur during the second half of calving when everyone is tired & the routines are not strictly kept to every day.
It's really important that everyone in the team all do every task the same way as the regular calf rearer. It's the strict quality control over mixes, quantities & routines that makes such a huge difference. For example does the team all mix electrolyte in exactly the same way?
What measures have you taken to ensure this always happens (see photo).
On these websites the target weights are clearly set out for the different breeds.
It concerns me that so few farmers are regularly weighing heifers. How do you know if your investment in young stock is on target? I think every discussion group should invest in a set of modern scales for weighing cattle. It's ideally suited to group purchase as each farm may only use them say 12 times a year. Modern cattle scales are highly portable.
Without weighing you have NO idea!.