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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.