The weather in this country is particulary suited to growing grass. The temperate climate and regular rainfall makes us one of the few countries in the world that can grow grass for eight months of the year. Whenever the soil temperature is above 5c the grass will grow.
Grass provides all the nutrients that a milking cow needs. Cows are fussy eaters so the grass has to be carefully managed so it is eaten when it is at its most nutritous, typically around 6 inches tall. Tall grass will often be left in favour of shorter tastier grass.
Photos above show lush grass at the start of a grazing (above left), and the next morning when the cows have eaten all the grass (above right). Like kids with a clean dinner plate the cows are expected to eat all the grass up before they are given anymore. And like kids they can moan and groan if they think there is something better to eat elsewhere!
The herd grazes the whole farm, so tracks have been built so they can walk to all the fields. The tracks are especially important in wet weather when the cows feet can carve the ground up and tread all the grass in.
More tracks have been built recently to provide access to the furthest fields on the farm. Old concrete railway sleepers have been laid using a 360 digger to create a roadway.
The track is fenced off with electric fence wire which is respected by man and cow alike. The fence carries a pulse of electric which will give you a nasty jolt if you touch it, but is not dangerous. Cows rarely touch it more than once and respect its boundary (as do I).
This simply means we graze one field at a time. When all the grass has been eaten on one field we move the cows on to the next. This continues on until we arrive at the field they first grazed. This normally takes around 3 weeks by which time the first field should have regrown a crop of grass.
On the farm map below I have given an example of a 21 day grazing rotation.
Each field is split into a smaller area with a temporary electric fence giving the cows enough grass for 12 hours. They are given a fresh patch of grass twice daily after each milking.
As you can see from the map, the pylon, 36 and banky fields are not in this rotation. This is because at certain times of year the grass grows too quickly for all of it to be grazed by the cows and a surplus is created. The grass from these fields is harvested, stored and fed to the cows during the winter time.
Grassland management can be difficult.
The grass grows at its quickest during the spring when it can grow 3 times faster than in the summer. At this time there is far too much grass for the cows to eat and we often harvest (silage) large areas to deal with the surplus.
The cattle below are in a large crop of grass which is nearly too tall to graze.
Good grass is leafy and has very little stem but when it gets too tall it becomes stemmy and the leaf area becomes smaller. This will make it less nutritous and can drastically reduce the cows milk production. A cow producing 25 lires a day could have her yield halved.
The weather has a huge effect on the growth rate and quality of the grass
A dry spell of weather will mean growth rates will slow and more land will be neeeded to feed the cows or their grass will have to be supplemented with corn, hay or silage. Excessive rain can leave the ground saturated which will also slow growth down and the quality will drop too (less energy).
Feeding cows on a grass based diet does involve a lot of decision making and it can be difficult to provide a consistent supply of quality grass for the herd to eat. Despite this I beleive there are many benefits to choosing this way of farming.
No, I'm not a hippy or a herbivore, I like grass because it solves a lot of farming problems. Using rotational grazing I am able to grow a lot of grass. It lets me keep my cows outside for a large part of the year which were I like to see them. The herd are happier and healthier at grass even when the weather is dreary at best.
There is also considerable cost savings with grassland farming as outdoor cows largely feed themselves and require no cleaning out. Conversely keeping them insides means forage has to be cut, foraged, moved, stored then loaded and fed out at a later date. Bedding also has to be bought, stored and put out. These animals will produce muck which needs to be cleaned away, stored and then spread later in the year. All of these jobs require considerable machinery, diesel, electricty and labour and make up for a large portion of the cost of producing milk. Although I can not keep the cows out all year round there is still large savings to be made and health benefits to rotational grazing.
Cows milking on this system however, will not produce the amount of milk they would do if they were on an indoor unit. Despite that I believe that because of the huge savings in cost and the grass growing potential of this farm it is a more profitable way of producing milk here.