‘Flexibility is key’: How this Co. Waterford farmer manages his spring-grazing system

The grazing season is well underway for some dairy farmers due to the dry and warm January and February. For Jamie Costin it began at the turn of the year, when he was able to leave his milkers out night and day.

He believes the right approach is to look at early spring grazing with a ‘flexible’ mindset so yes, the cows may come back indoors for a while. But, he will have a spring grazing plan which he began to implement in the autumn to maximise winter growth and achieve early turnout.

This year flexibility has been key; currently the cows are in or out depending on the weather. “We play by the weather to manage our swards,” he said.

“You must respect the land and understand you depend on it. We have a spring rotation planner and we are close to target. We will normally finish our first rotation by early April, around the 5.

Then, from the start of May, we will rotate every 21 days through to the end of August. Our aim is to maximise the utilisation of every blade of grass we grow, and we have to fit the size of the herd to the forage available.

Jamie milks 360 cows at Cosfeirm, Teoranta, Ring on the outskirts of Dungarven, and has almost 130ha of grassland with 80ha owned and 50ha leased. Included is 5ha of forest that he has moved the stock away from totally in a bid to regenerate the area and encourage wildlife.

‘Rapid period of expansion’

The farm has gone through a rapid period of expansion, running just 150 cows back in 2012, and his first investment was into the cows themselves. This was followed by roadways and water, and now moving on to new buildings and major capital investment into a new rotary parlour.

“Stocking rate is something that we look at very carefully,” he said. “We don’t believe we should go above 2.5 cows/ha. One of the hardest decisions is how many cows can you run? Last year, we were at between 2.1 and 2.2 cows/ha and that worked out perfectly with the dry summer.”

Jamie believes farmers need to understand the value of early grazing and understand how they can graze without impacting negatively on stock, soil and future growth. Planning and good management will have allowed many to maximise the opportunity this spring has offered.

Grass will usually go dormant through winter. Depending on the weather, grass in February and March can look awful – small brittle leaves, often dull brownish green, yellowing singed tips, even bluish purple in colour. This is grass that many farmers seemingly place little value on, yet it’s some of the best a farm can grow.

Herbage analysis over the past 10 years has demonstrated this to be around 12.5ME, typically around 20% DM and 25% protein in ryegrass dominant swards. What would it cost to buy this quality feed in a different form?

Once you believe in the value of winter stored grass, it’s easy to see how it will look after stock. Lots of stock condensed into a small area for a short time will do less long-term damage than a few animals on a large area for a long time.

This management technique, along with infrastructure such as stock tracks and temporary fencing, is how farmers will be able to begin grazing early.

“First rotation management is a balance between rationing the availability of grass as it grows, stimulating growth by grazing off winter stored pasture, and setting up grass quality for subsequent rotations by hitting good residuals,” he said.

‘Don’t waste grass’

Jamie walks his grass and measures it every two weeks in February and March and agrees that the earlier you get out and measure what you have, the better you can graze the farm. From April he walks every three or four days, and admits he is often surprised by what he finds.

“As we’ve improved our knowledge, we’ve increased our yield. In 2009 we were getting between 7t and 8t of dry matter a hectare – now we are closer to 13-16t. In 2017 we got to 15.2t but last year, with the drought, we were back down to 12.4t. Obviously, yield is very closely linked to stocking rate, so this is why we feel that 2.5 cows/ha is about right for us.”

Jamie aims for opening covers of around 1,000, but says what’s important is to calculate what is the right intake for the cows. He believes this to be around 160-180kg/DM per animal, and when the grass is growing at peak times, he will take a cut of silage when he feels there’s extra available.

“These figures are easy to achieve if you are managing your grass properly. I look at the weather forecast and plan. It’s certainly becoming a lot more scientific but once you get into a system it becomes intuitive.

“My message would really be – don’t waste grass – learn what you have, manage it properly, and maximise the utilisation.”

Further information

For more information click here