Grazing infrastructure – if you build it, the cows will come

David Brady, a dairy farmer from Tierlahood, Stradone, Co. Cavan, welcomed over 200 visitors to his farm as part of a Teagasc Heavy Soils Programme drainage event on Tuesday.

Brady milks a herd of 81 black and white cows on a 40ha milking platform. Each year the farm, which stands at 180m above sea level, experiences 1,100mm of rainfall.

In recent years, the Co. Cavan man has focused on utilising and growing more grass. Back in 2015, the milking platform grew 8.5t/ha; it’s on track to produce 11t/ha this year.

At a value of €180/t, that 100t of extra grass is worth €18,000/annum to the farm’s bottom line.

Where did the extra grass growth come from?

Teagasc’s James Dunne, Brady’s local dairy advisor, explained that the extra grass growth was achieved through improved soil fertility, a certain amount of drainage work and reseeding.

“Over the last number of years, David has improved his soil fertility dramatically by focusing on pH and the phosphorous (P) and potassium indexes (K),” he said.

Teagasc’s James Dunne speaking at the farm walk

Currently, 37% of all of the soils on the farm are sufficient in pH, P and K. A more detailed breakdown of the farm’s soil fertility levels can be seen in the below table:

Along with the investment in soil fertility, Brady has also reseeded approximately 50-60% of his milking platform over the past five years. An extensive drainage project, focusing on the “most difficult” 2ha, was also completed this year.

Grass measuring and surplus bales

Dunne also credited the introduction of grass measuring as a major advantage to the farm when it comes to managing grass.

“With grass measuring, he knows how much each paddock is growing and he can easily identify surpluses and deficits.

Identifying surpluses is important on a heavy farm, as you need a silage reserve for when the weather turns against you and you have to buffer feed cows.

“You need that silage reserve in place and it’s very weather related; some years you mightn’t need as much as others and other years you will need more.”

To date, Brady has taken 400 bales of surplus silage off his milking platform.

Dunne added that a stocking rate of 2.03 cows per hectare allowed such a quantity to be saved and there’s scope to increase the milking platform’s stocking rate to 2.5 cows per hectare. To achieve this, 100 cows will be milked on the farm next spring.

Grazing infrastructure and future targets

Cow numbers have remained static in recent years, as Brady has focused on improving soil fertility and grazing infrastructure on his farm.

Since joining the Heavy Soils Programme, the Cavan-based farmer has aimed to increase the number of grazing days to 270 each year – a move that will be beneficial in terms of farm profitability.

Teagasc’s Cian Devaney, Brady’s former dairy adviser, outlined some of the improvements made on the farm to help reach this target.

Devaney explained that two blocks of land were brought into the system under a long-term lease in recent times.

“The focus has been on getting these two blocks to pump out grass as quickly as possible,” he said.

Along with reseeding these two parcels, Brady has also improved the grazing infrastructure on his farm and has prioritised spending on roadways and access points.

The distance from the furthest paddocks to the parlour has been shortened to 1.3km, Devaney added, and 500 gallon drinkers have been installed in most of the paddocks.

The development of such infrastructure, he said, will allow Brady to increase his cow numbers. Next year, Brady plans to milk 100 cows in a 10-unit milking parlour. The additional numbers will come from his own herd along with the purchasing of a number of cows.

This move will bring the milk platform’s stocking rate to 2.5 cows per hectare. Targets have also been set to improve the volume of milk solids sold and the quantity of grass grown on-farm.

Dunne added that the farm had previously been stocked at 2.5 cows per hectare in 2015. But, a high quantity of silage and concentrate supplementation was used in the system at this time.

“About 1t of meal was fed to each cow in 2015 and David is on track to feed 500-600kg/cow this year.”

Investing over €7,000/ha in drainage

Last year, two of the most difficult hectares on the farm were targeted for draining. Prior to this project, Brady admitted that the these paddocks were grazed, at most, twice each year and they grew 1-2t/ha of grass annually.

The drainage programme included the installation of open drains, field drains and gravel mole drains. The field drains were installed at a depth of 0.9m and a 15-20m spacing; the gravel mole drains were installed at a depth of 0.45m and a gap of 1.5m was left between each drain.

In total, the investment in drainage stood at €7,680/ha.

“The two paddocks were the worst fields we had on the farm and they were grazed once or twice each year if we were lucky.

“You wouldn’t walk down the field at this time of the year; if you did, you’d sink,” he said.

David Brady speaking at the farm walk on his farm

These paddocks were reseeded in the middle of May and they have been grazed three times already this year.

Brady estimates that these paddocks will produce 10t/ha next year and at a conservative return of €1,000/ha in extra grass growth, he expects the investment to be returned in seven years.

Black and white breeding

The breeding focus on farm is based around high EBI, black and white Friesian genetics. Brady’s herd is not short of fertility; last spring his cows calved over a period of 12 weeks and one day.

The herd’s calving interval stands at 377 days on paper; in reality it’s closer to 370 days as the start calving date was moved back by one week this year.

In addition, 74% of the cows in the herd calve down within the first six weeks of the calving season.

“The fertility in the herd is very good; the focus going forward would be on high EBI, black and white sires. He will continue to focus on fertility and protein to lift solids.

“The EBI at the moment is €64 across all the cows. But, the 2016 and 2017 young stock coming in have an average EBI of €127,” Dunne explained.

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