Graz­ing man­age­ment in the spot­light

Milk pro­duc­ers are under pres­sure from per­sis­tent­ly low pro­duc­er prices. At the same time, demand for more nat­ur­al foods is ris­ing. One solu­tion could be to focus more on graz­ing man­age­ment. But just “open­ing the cow­shed door and let the cows out” is not enough.

Euro­pean dairy pro­duc­ers have been under intense pres­sure in recent years, with low milk prices erod­ing prof­itabil­i­ty. Many have there­fore been look­ing to make more of their grass, in a bid to cut pro­duc­tion costs. At the same time, there has been grow­ing pub­lic demand for more nat­ur­al, healthy food, and in some coun­tries proces­sors are pay­ing a pre­mi­um for grass-fed meat and dairy prod­ucts. How­ev­er, in many parts of Europe the grad­ual change away from grazed sys­tems has meant that knowl­edge has been lost; farm­ers are hav­ing to redis­cov­er how to get the most from pas­ture.

In the Nether­lands, mead­ow dairy prod­ucts are in such demand that graz­ing coach­es are help­ing farm­ers change to graz­ing sys­tems. Although graz­ing is far more wide­spread in the UK, pro­duc­ers are still push­ing the bound­aries, with one farmer on Dart­moor mow­ing his grass before graz­ing it. Across the Chan­nel in France, the two broth­ers Jean-François und Michel Conan show that con­vert­ing to organ­ic has boost­ed grass­land pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and resilience to drought. And in Ger­many – where graz­ing has become quite unusu­al- a research cen­tre is help­ing con­ven­tion­al farm­ers to learn lessons from organ­ic pro­duc­tion. Regard­less of what dri­ves this devel­op­ment, grass, if prop­er­ly man­aged, can deliv­er very high yields and high qual­i­ty.

UK: Opti­mised graz­ing with pre-mow­ing

Nes­tled on the west­ern edge of Dart­moor, Brins­abach Farm has been in the Bat­ten fam­i­ly since 1559 – but there’s noth­ing old-fash­ioned about the way Bill and his son John man­age their pas­ture. Milk­ing 60 cross­bred cows near South Bren­tor, Devon, they are con­stant­ly striv­ing to make the most of their grass­land. “I want­ed to repli­cate the qual­i­ty and yield of spring grass all year round, and thought that cut­ting it reg­u­lar­ly might work,” says Bill. For the past eight years he has been mow­ing the pas­ture before graz­ing, and is thrilled with the results. “When graz­ing, our cows would eat 17kg a day, but with pre-mow­ing that increased to 23kg. As a result, peak yields from for­age increased by 40%, to 35 litres a day.” John cuts the pas­ture once a day, and strip grazes the pad­docks, mov­ing the elec­tric fenc­ing four times a day. “We want to moti­vate the cows to get up and eat again – it’s like going back for dessert.”

For six years Bill Bat­ten has been feed­ing his cows fresh­ly mown grass in the field. Their dai­ly milk pro­duc­tion increased by 27%.

Before the fam­i­ly start­ed mow­ing they were feed­ing 1t of con­cen­trates per cow a year – that has now dropped as low as 200kg, depend­ing on the grow­ing sea­son – sav­ing around £160/cow. Annu­al grass yields have reached 13,900kg DM/ha, with pro­tein con­tent from 11.4% to 22.4%, and metabolis­able ener­gy at 11.3-11.5MJ.

Nether­lands: Sup­port from the gov­ern­ment

Even the gov­ern­ment is back­ing the dri­ve for grass in the Nether­lands, help­ing more than 800 dairy farm­ers to adopt graz­ing sys­tems up until 2018. After a small dent, the num­ber of pas­ture farm­ers rose again to 14,000 in 2018, the same lev­el as in 2012. It sup­ports the Sticht­ing Wei­de­gang (Graz­ing Foun­da­tion), which was found­ed to pro­mote graz­ing and help farm­ers with spe­cial­ist mead­ow coach­es. “Much knowl­edge has been lost, both by the farmer and the cow,” says foun­da­tion sec­re­tary Kees-Jaap Hin. “You can­not just open the cow­shed door: Farm­ers have to learn how to man­age their grass and cows have to learn how to graze again.”

Back to graz­ing: In the Nether­lands the Sticht­ing Wei­de­gang sup­ports dairy farm­ers when con­vert­ing to mead­ow milk pro­duc­tion.

With around 70 mead­ow coach­es around the coun­try, farm­ers pay €375-1500 to get sup­port through­out the graz­ing sea­son. As well as one-to-one advice and help in draw­ing up a graz­ing strat­e­gy, they also attend farm walks to learn from oth­er pro­duc­ers. “Every farm is dif­fer­ent, so every out­door graz­ing strat­e­gy must be dif­fer­ent,” says mead­ow coach Henk Antonis­sen. Anoth­er rea­son for the graz­ing trend is the 1.5-2c/litre pre­mi­um paid by some proces­sors for milk pro­duced from cows that graze for at least six hours a day, 120 days a year. Super­mar­kets now ask specif­i­cal­ly for the Wei­dezuiv­el (Grass­land Dairy) mark, with mead­ow dairy prod­ucts becom­ing the stan­dard on the shelf.

Robot­ic Milk­ing

Two years ago, Wilbert Bertens returned to a graz­ing mod­el at his farm near Bre­da, hav­ing housed his milk­ing cows since 2006 when he intro­duced robot­ic milk­ers. Although his 155 Hol­stein cows had no prob­lem find­ing the robot after turnout, feed man­age­ment was more dif­fi­cult. “When the cows are inside I know exact­ly what they are eat­ing,” he says. Ini­tial­ly, Wilbert kept on feed­ing the cows before turnout in the morn­ing. “But when they went out they spent the whole day lying down chew­ing the cud,” he explains. That’s why he tried to feed them in the evening, but it was still dif­fi­cult to find a bal­ance. “I just didn’t know how much they ate dur­ing the day: It seems easy on paper, but it’s a dif­fer­ent sto­ry in prac­tice.”

Last year he decid­ed to bring his cows back to the barn. “Because of the phos­phate reg­u­la­tion I had to get rid of my young live­stock. So I decid­ed to con­cen­trate only on milk pro­duc­tion. Hav­ing cows inside is the eas­i­est way to do that. When they are out­side, you just don’t know how much they eat and you don’t know the qual­i­ty of the grass. Some­times there’s a lot of grass, some­times it’s dry, some­times it’s wet. Once, when it was very dry, the cows broke through the fence because they want­ed to be in the barn. For me that was the moment when I decid­ed to bring them back to the barn. Keep­ing cows out­side is hard­er than I thought.”

The con­sumer wants the cows out­doors and it puts the sec­tor in a pos­i­tive light.

Wilbert Bertens

But what about his idea of the graz­ing mod­el? “It’s bet­ter for the con­sumer and our image to have the cows out­side, but I think it’s bet­ter for the cows to be inside. That also applies to my yield. The aver­age pro­duc­tion is now around 10,500 l per cow per year instead of the pre­vi­ous 9,300 l. The milk factory’s graz­ing pre­mi­um can­not com­pen­sate for that.”

Ger­many: Research for graz­ing man­age­ment

In Ger­many, turn­ing cows out to pas­ture has become quite unusu­al. How­ev­er, in 2014, 51.5% of con­sumers said they want­ed milk from grazed cows. There are no more recent sur­veys. But demand and sup­ply have risen sharply since then. Cur­rent­ly, 100 mil­lion litres per year come from the pas­ture milk indus­try. The Uni­ver­si­ty of Kiel has been car­ry­ing out research on organ­ic farm­ing since 1994, and its find­ings are just as rel­e­vant to con­ven­tion­al pro­duc­ers. It has found that grass­land farm­ing low­ers milk pro­duc­tion costs, improves bio­di­ver­si­ty and low­ers dairy farms‘ CO2 foot­prints.

The team is cur­rent­ly work­ing with Irish col­leagues to devel­op a pas­ture man­age­ment sys­tem for dif­fer­ent land­scape types in Ger­many. This will be avail­able from 2021 both as an app and as an online pro­gram. Based on an appli­ca­tion from Ire­land, it will fore­cast the dai­ly grass growth rates of a farm based on data on weath­er, region, fer­til­iz­er, soil, etc. The sys­tem will also be used as an online appli­ca­tion for the devel­op­ment of the new sys­tem. The aim is to pro­vide the farmer with a deci­sion-mak­ing aid, for exam­ple about when the ani­mals are put out to pas­ture, when they need to be reseed­ed or silage mown.

Lind­hof – one of the university’s research farms – is study­ing the eco­nom­ic and eco­log­i­cal ben­e­fits of grass­land farm­ing. It has found the best for­age mix is high qual­i­ty grass; to pro­vide ener­gy, with clover sup­ply­ing the protein.”In the past, farm­ers used to let the grass grow as high as their boots, but now we only let it grow to about 10cm,” says sci­en­tif­ic man­ag­er Ralf Loges. At this height, the cows can pluck up young grass with a sin­gle bite, reduc­ing wastage and improv­ing rumen effi­cien­cies. Research has shown that pur­chased con­cen­trates with an ener­gy con­tent of 10MJ cost around 47c, with maize silage of the same qual­i­ty cost­ing 25c. “With pas­ture feed­ing, the price can be sig­nif­i­cant­ly below 20c.” The project is already pro­duc­ing food for thought. “The aban­don­ment of quo­tas and the drop in milk price have caused peo­ple to rethink things,” Ralf explains. “We see this in the increas­ing num­ber of vis­i­tors we have, espe­cial­ly con­ven­tion­al farm­ers.”

France: Increase in organ­ic milk pro­duc­tion

About 34% of the LNF is in grass, although the share of maize is increas­ing slow­ly as farms get big­ger. At the same time, demand for organ­ic milk is increas­ing. Organ­ic milk pro­duc­tion is expect­ed to increase by 52% by the end of 2019 com­pared to 2017 pro­duc­tion fig­ures. At Bon­tul farm in Brit­tany, Jean-François Conan and his broth­er Michel con­vert­ed to organ­ic in 2009. As a con­ven­tion­al farm, the pas­ture — sown with peren­ni­al rye­grass and white clover — was poor­ly suit­ed to the sum­mer heat and the farm’s light soil. “The rye­grass only grew two months a year,” remem­bers Jean-François.

Dairy farmer Jean-François Conan with one of his cross-bred cows (Hol­stein x Nor­we­gian Red).

The first step was to plant a vari­ety of plants able to effi­cient­ly draw nutri­ents and water from the soil. Mead­ow fes­cue and dactyl were added to the diploid and tetraploid peren­ni­al rye­grass, togeth­er with a lit­tle Tim­o­thy, blue­grass and chico­ry. Yields now aver­age 6-8t DM/ha and Jean-François grazes it inten­sive­ly on a rota­tion­al basis, leav­ing the whole herd less than 24 hours on one spe­cif­ic area. Jean-François has also intro­duced a four-way cross­breed­ing pro­gramme, using Hol­steins for milk vol­ume and Jer­seys for milk qual­i­ty and docil­i­ty. Mont­be­liardes com­pen­sate for the Jersey’s small size, while Nor­weigian Reds offer high health and mobil­i­ty.

Fer­til­i­ty is also an essen­tial cri­te­ri­on, as to make the most of the grass in spring, the cows must calve with­in a six-week peri­od. “When mak­ing breed­ing choic­es, it is impor­tant to con­sid­er indi­vid­ual traits and not just breed per­for­mance.“ Today, all the farm’s eco­nom­ic indi­ca­tors are pos­i­tive: With milk pro­duc­tion close to 4,600 litres/cow/year income from milk amounts to €180,000, rough­ly the same as the con­ven­tion­al sys­tem due to the organ­ic bonus. Pro­duc­tion costs are also marked­ly low­er, with a feed cost of €35/1000 litres against a region­al aver­age of €58/1000 litres organ­ic milk.