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Sunday 11 December 2016

Dairy: Beating the weather with on-off grazing

Henry Walsh

Published 09/03/2016 | 02:30

Niamh Ferriter, Coomenoole, Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry, feeding one of her Limousin cows and bull calf. Niamh is getting ready for lambing in the next two weeks with over 120 ewes to lamb. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan.
Niamh Ferriter, Coomenoole, Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry, feeding one of her Limousin cows and bull calf. Niamh is getting ready for lambing in the next two weeks with over 120 ewes to lamb. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan.

Rain continues to be the common denominator this spring. Here in the west the weather continues to affect our daily farming decisions.

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I took a look back at my grazing diary and it showed we have been working with very challenging ground conditions since late October, in particular since Storm Abigail in November.

We had a difficult period grazing the winter blocks but still managed to minimise damage by allocating fresh grass twice daily at dawn and dusk. This has shown us the importance of fresh allocations and back fencing to minimise ground damage.

We have a compact calving herd with 55pc calved in the first three weeks.

As I have written previously, we winter most of the cows on a wood-chip stand-off pad along with a 50 cubicle shed beside the milking parlour.

We went to grass full time (night and day) this year as the cows calved from February 8. We followed our own wet weather grazing management plan as well as the on-off grazing strategy developed by Teagasc Moorepark.

The norm this spring so far, apart from an occasional good day, is that the cows are milked at 7am and stand on concrete with access to the cubicles till 11.30am.

They are then let go to grass until the evening milking at 4.30pm. The cows are again held on concrete till 11pm when they are let go again to a fresh allocation of grass till the following morning at 7am when they come in for milking.

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We are definitely marking the ground more than what is acceptable some days but so long as the cows do not walk over it a number of times our experience has been that it will repair itself. One other action we take is to run a colostrum herd where every cow stays for four days after calving.

These cows are the ones who will unsettle the main herd if they are with them as they look to come back to the yard multiple times daily to their calves.

We keep this group in at night on silage and milk OAD to reduce the workload. They are milked last in the morning giving us warm milk to feed the calves.

At this stage I see a number of positives from having persevered with grazing the cows rather than keeping them indoors.

We had 28pc of the farm grazed by March 3 while feeding 3kg of a 14pc grass nut. While this is behind target we grazed some high covers of 1,500kgDM/ha to ensure gut fill in the cows during the wet weather.

To date 180 cows calved and we had just three cases of mastitis. There is no infection out in the fields, unlike the cubicle beds.

Our latest milk test result is showing 3.98pc protein and an SCC of 122,000.

I spoke to a man today whose cows are housed full time on average silage feeding 4kg of concentrate and he is considering increasing to 6kg. His cows are producing milk at 3.15pc protein.

This is a massive difference where costs are running much higher yet milk price being lower by approximately 3c/l.

As well as the lower milk price now when the cows get to grass it will take the protein percentage a long time to recover lost ground.

To date calf rearing has gone very well. Credit must go to the calf rearing workshops held by our local Glenina Veterinary Clinic and our co-op Aurivo.

We have been more focused on getting three litres of fresh colostrum into the calf shortly after birth. We prefer to feed with a bucket and teat and find the sucking instinct of the calf is very strong shortly after birth and there is less trauma at the next feed as they are already trained.

We are more aware of the importance of plenty of straw in the bed and we have 20cm of woodchip under all the calves. They are now eating calf muesli and chewing at the hay and straw.

I have ordered a pallet of good quality milk replacer from our co-op and the next move will be to get the calves out to grass in a sheltered field 1km away from the yard.

We will feed the milk replacer once-a-day with the 40-teat mobile feeder when they are a month old.

Meal is fed to the calves at grass by using a bird-proof feeder. In my experience this is critical to ensure birds do not have the opportunity to land in an open trough to walk on the feed and then deposit the content of their diet over the last 24 hours.

The target of calving down the heifers as two year-olds does not allow for any period of poor thrive.

The first nitrogen of the year was spread on February 27. This was very late for us so we applied 37units/ac of urea on the milking platform instead of the usual 23units/ac. We still intend to have 70units/ac spread by April 1.

We have got very little slurry out because of the wet ground, so this is now an urgent job as soon as weather allows. The weanling heifers are reasonably content and the most important thing is that they do not get into the habit of aimless walking.

We find this is often triggered by herding so we prefer to estimate the amount of days grazing they will get from an area - say 3 days and just leave them at it. We will continue to feed dry-cow minerals and do the IBR and lepto vaccines to all breeding animals.

Bord Bia audit

We had the much dreaded Bord Bia audit a few weeks ago. The experience was positive for me with no problems identified in the seven 'major' areas.

A fault in any of the seven would result in a fail.

We then got 97pc in the smaller questions, with a follow up letter instructing me to have the areas we fell down on sorted by the time we have the next audit. One area that did give me an inkling of their potential to be tough was when the inspector counted up the mastitis tubes used in 2015. He looked across at me and proceeded to count them a second time.

He then said I used the same amount of tubes that an average 140-cow herd would use for the year even though we were milking 240 cows in 2015.

I took it as a compliment until I realised he was suggesting we had not recorded all tubes used.

I felt the red mist descending upon me until I regained my composure and assured him all tubes used were recorded and that the answer almost certainly lay in us getting the cows out of the sheds and onto grass as soon as possible after calving and for as many days as possible while milking.

Henry and Patricia Walsh farm in Oranmore Co Galway along with their son Enda and neighbour and outfarm owner John Moran

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