Friday, 29 July 2011

Fascinating New Pastures For Dairy Cows.....Thanks to Innovative Farmers

Many pasture based dairy farmers in both France & the UK are experimenting with mixed pasture swards. These “New Pastures” always include an abundance of clovers & increasingly include Herbs such as Chicory & Plantain. The inclusion of the deep rooting herbs adds a completely new dimension to pastures for grazing dairy cows.

These pastures are very different from conventional pastures in many ways. Nitrogen fed pastures tend to be monocultures of ryegrasses. Well managed ryegrass clover pastures are highly productive. The clover content is related to the grazing intensity & the amount of nitrogen used. The mixed pastures offer considerable biodiversity, interesting possible changes to the cows diet, generally higher protein levels but more complex grazing properties. In mixed species pastures some plants are grazed out & its difficult to graze according to every plant’s requirements. However these new pastures might well enhance the health benefits of grass fed milk.
The advantages of grass fed over grain fed have been well documented in relation to possible health benefits to humans
French research on the effect of mixed pasture swards on cheese quality is interesting  
French butter has shown seasonal differences in Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) levels with the highest being in summer. This suggests more pasture being fed & possible changes within the pasture composition..
Danish research comparing Danish milk with UK grass fed milk found that the UK pasture based milk had higher levels of antioxidants & lower levels of saturated fatty acids in the milk.
Last week in Dorset with the Realfarmers Discussion Group, we viewed new Plantain plus clover pastures that were sown this spring. Its early days but it looks very impressive so far given that it’s been a very dry period of weather. These pastures were first grazed at the six leaf stage.
In Brittany, France on a recent study tour we saw a mix of new mixed sward pastures including some very productive organic Lucerne pastures that included grasses & clovers.
This farm’s pasture consumption per hectare was over 10 Tonnes DM/ha which is exceptional for an organic farm in a dry area.
There was also a range of mixed pastures that included Chicory.
These included Chicory plus Kale + grasses. This is an interesting on farm experiment. On the same farm there was Oats under sown with Chicory.
Many of these experiments are occurring on dry soils where ryegrass may not be the best option…..or rather there might be much better options.
The true value of these mixed sward pastures isn’t fully understood & there is an element of “Suck & See” trialling by innovative pasture based dairy farmers.
One thing for sure is that the “traditional view of what a dairy pasture looks like” is being severely tested. We look forward to seeing the outcomes especially as the climate warming predictions for the UK include drier summers & more variation in climatic patterns.
Current UK Pasture Measurements
Pasture growths have slowed dramatically in the drier areas of the Midlands. However in the higher rainfall areas growth rates are still excellent.
TheAverage Pasture Cover (kgsDM/ha) & Pasture Growth (kgsDM/ha/day)
Dumfries, Scotland, Average Farm Cover 2085, Growth 87kgsDM/day, Demand 37
South Ayrshire,Scotland, 2322, growth 137, will cut out supplement this week
Staffordshire, 2420, growth down to 35, feeding turnips 4kgs/day/cow, Body CS good
Shropshire Organic, 1683, gr 25, grazing very tight, still due 2 feet of rain, Dry & Dusty
Nottingham, 2150, gr68 last week but 35 this week, dem 69, feeding maize, outwintering crops good start after wholecrop
Oxfordshire, 2000, gr 40, dem 25, expecting growth to slow in dry
Gloucestershire, 2186, gr 60, dem 55, looking dry again,
Pembrokeshire, 2243, growth 77, demand 64
Devon 2345, growth 55
Devon Hills, 2446, gr92, dem 73 will be feeding turnips in 10 days
Dorset, 2440, gr 55, demand 44
Dorset, very dry, gr 20, demand 40, 40 day round, about to feed silage
Sussex organic, 1800, growth 30, dry cows on 3 groups, nearly have required silage

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Cidre Trees, Windbreaks & Landcare. We Need to Get Involved & Rethink

I don't think UK farmers are planting enough new trees on their farms. On a recent UK “Pasture to Profit” discussion group study tour of Brittany with a group of pasture based dairy farmers I could help but be impressed with the relatively new Tree rows or farm hedges that some of the pasture based dairy farmers in Brittany were planting. They are quite different from what is commonly seen on English farms. The hedges consist of a number of different trees but also included both flowering scrubs & even fruit trees. These new & very attractive farm hedges/windbreaks were taller & more open than most hedges in the UK.
They were more effective windbreaks, less annual work to manage & aesthetically very attractive.

Do we have enough trees on our UK pasture based dairy farms? Are our hedges very effective? Is there an opportunity here to add to the biodiversity on our farms?
The answer I think is NO, NO & YES.
I’m not suggesting the traditional hedges be ripped out as they are an important part of the UK agricultural landscape & this working industrial landscape is hugely important to our heritage & the tourism industry.
However compared to other agricultural nations the present farmers are planting very few new trees. I think this is both a problem & a lost opportunity. Take the Landcare movement in Australia for example. Most Australian farmers belong to their local Landcare group & most Australian farmers are actively planting thousands of trees. We should be doing this here in the UK. Why don’t we start a Landcare UK group in every rural district in the country? Pasture based dairy farmers could lead these groups to make sure they were effective & productive groups.
On of the on farm features in Brittany are the trees & scrubs planted into an earthen wall called a "Talus".
The planted talus--a steep earth berm (an earthen mound often between a road/track & a drain), planted with beeches, oaks, or hornbeam--was traditionally created to delimit the boundaries of farms in both Brittany & Normandy.
That's why, if you drive the country roads of the region, you often find your path "sunken" between two steep berms crowned with magnificent beech trees and flanked with a thick tapestry of ferns, vines, and wildflowers. The durability and beauty of this peculiar landscape feature has prompted me to reflect on its use in the UK as a farm shelter hedge. In many ways it is very similar to the hedge rows of Devon & Cornwall that are built on top of an earth mound between the road/tracks & a drain on the farm side of the hedge. These farm hedges in Devon & Cornwall are not recent structures but have been built generations ago.
The talus consists of a packed earth berm say a 1-1.5metres high, half a metre wide at the top, and with sides sloping at a steep angle of 60 degrees. The top of the talus is planted with closely spaced trees in a single row or--more frequently--in an offset double row. The trees are set on approximately 4-foot centres. I know this may seem like impossibly close spacing, but such close planting is integral to the success of the talus, ensuring that a dense network of roots retains the soil of the berm. And believe me, it works. Many examples of talus hundreds of years old, crowned with magnificent towering beeches, bear testament to the validity of these living architectural farm structures & why there has been a recent surge in their use on dairy farms in Brittany. A new generation of pasture based dairy farmers who are not only very conscious of the beauty of their environment but who are keen to increase the biodiversity of their farms, are leading the charge.
The advantages of a talus are that it alone provides shelter for live stock especially calves, there is very good drainage for the trees & scrubs & the bulk of the talus is top soil so it’s an ideal medium to establish trees & a farm hedge.
Effectiveness of Windbreaks & Hedges.
Windbreaks are designed to break up the wind energy/power to provide a more pleasant environment for pastures & livestock on dairy farms. Historically hedges determined farm & field boundaries but today they provide shelter of a sort to livestock especially young calves & milking cows. Are they very effective at providing shelter….probably NOT. There are two major limitations, firstly height & secondly they tend to be near solid structures (density greater than 80%) so they change the dynamics of the wind but do little to provide shelter. In fact they probably increase the wind speed over and around the hedge.
As wind blows against a windbreak, air pressure builds up on the windward side (the side towards the wind), and large quantities of air move up and over the top or around the ends of the windbreak. Windbreak structure -- height, density, number of rows, species composition, length, orientation, and continuity -- determines the effectiveness of a windbreak in reducing wind speed and altering the microclimate. Windbreak structure -- height, density, number of rows, species composition, length, orientation, and continuity -- determines the effectiveness of a windbreak in reducing wind speed and altering the microclimate. Height is a very important factor in the effectiveness of a windbreak/hedge. On the windward side of a windbreak, wind speed reductions are measurable upwind for a distance of 2 to 5 times the height of the windbreak (2H to 5H). On the leeward side (the side away from the wind), wind speed reductions occur up to 30H downwind of the barrier. However this is influenced by the density. So a density of 40-60% is the most effective at providing downwind area of protection. A density under 20% is ineffective & as already discussed over 80% is a problem. The link between effective windbreaks & pasture growth is well established as it influences temperature. The calves do much better in a well protected environment.
 If you want to read an excellent guide to windbreak effectiveness I suggest you read this article from Penn State University  
The more species of trees & scrubs in a hedge/windbreak the better as it influences the height & the density. This allows you to add biodiversity to your farm & include flowering species to help our friends the honey bees. I was impressed in Brittany to see flowering scrubs like Hypericum (the yellow flowering scrub in the photos), Buddleja, Rhododendron, Ferns as well as Heritage apple trees.  Why not add apple trees for example that have flowers & fruit that can be harvested….cider is a very nice drop on a hot day & very traditional.
So our traditional hedges in the UK may not be very effective at either providing shelter, windbreaks or adding greatly to the biodiversity on our pasture based dairy farms. This in my view creates an opportunity & the French examples are excellent. Tree rows with many different species of both local trees & flowering scrubs. There is an opportunity begging to grow more cider apple trees as well.
I think the existing pasture groups should be initiating Landcare groups in their local community & taking a positive lead which could have massive genuine PR value in the rural & city population of the UK.
My thanks to my Breton friends Andre, Alain, Yvon & Jean Herve
Current UK Pasture Measurements
Pasture growth across the UK has generally improved if you have had rain but in the Midlands growth still very slow & soils still very dry. Experience suggests that growth takes sometime to get going after long dry spell but once soils are wet it all happens quickly!
TheAverage Pasture Cover (kgsDM/ha) & Pasture Growth (kgsDM/ha/day)
Northern Ireland, Portaferry, AFC 2150, Growth 78, demand 53, cutting silage bales to improve quality. Lots of showers
Cumbria, 2650, growth 77, demand 50, still silage to cut

North Wales, 1963, gr 64, demand 53,
Cheshire organic, 2100, gr 25, dem 25, round 35 days, feeding to hold covers
Shropshire, 2150, gr 35 but expecting growth after rain this week
Shropshire, 1984, gr 32, dem 33, feeding to build covers
Staffordshire, 2232, growth 35
East Staffordshire, 2100, gr 50 demand 35, light rain but not enough yet
Oxfordshire, 1950, gr 20, rain 15mm so optimistic
Dorset organic, 2550, gr 70, cutting wholecrop today
Cornwall Average Farm Pasture Cover 2450, growth 85, demand 58, more silage not enough cows

Friday, 15 July 2011

Bee Roads & Wild Flowers can help save the bees in the UK...Pasture Farmers are Key Players

Do you know what a “Bee Road” is? It’s a wild flower planting on farms to attract & protect Bees. I’ve started my own “Bee Road” sowing a wild flower strip of about 40metres x 10m along a roadside on a pasture based dairy farm.  It was sown this spring & is now in glorious techno colour. The bees & insects love it but there have been some problems like the dry weather & weed infestation. I am justly proud of my efforts but there are frustrations.
I’m however really angry at the moment East Staffordshire Council has just mown part of the roadside where I planted some of my roadside wild flowers or “Bee Road”. Of course the ability of those flowers to seed has been lost due to the vandalism of the council who have a May & June mowing routine. The roadside mowing routine shows that local authorities have no understanding, nor any real commitment to protecting the English biodiversity & specifically the humble but incredible important honey bees. 
Almost a third of global farm output depends on animal pollination, largely by honey bees. These foods provide 35pc of our calories, most of our minerals, vitamins, and anti-oxidants, and the foundations of gastronomy. Yet the bees are dying – or being killed – at a disturbing pace.
Bees are incredibly important to agriculture including pasture based dairy farms. Yet as I walk pastures day after day in the UK I see virtually no Honey bees & relatively few Bumble bees. Honestly when did you last see Honey Bees on your pastures?
I can proudly say that pasture based dairy farmers in the UK do have pastures that contain a lot of white clover, some red clover & some herbs like Chicory which all feed the bee population. Excessive use of Nitrogen fertilizer creates a monoculture of ryegrass with no flowering species for the Honey Bees. Grass based milk producers depend on the pollinators to reseed pastures with lush clover. Thats why grass fed milk is so much healthier.
In France, Dominque Bussereau, Secretary of State for Transport announced in January 2011 an ambitious plan to plant 250km of roadside in France with wild flowers to attract & protect the bees. This is likely to be extended over much of France with perhaps 12,000km of roadside being planted to help the Honey Bees. What an amazing plan!
"The Cooperative" Supermarket Group in the UK has taken a number of initiatives to save bees to the UK. This includes donating £750,000 for “Bee Roads”…wild flower plantings on roadsides in the UK. Good positive assistance by a supermarket retailer.
The Telegraph newspaper is to be congratulated on its “Save the Bees” campaign.
The evidence is that sadly the biodiversity in the English countryside is not what it used to be…. & this is affecting the bee population on which agriculture & food production is so reliant. You only need to look at the roadside hedges in the English countryside…they are lovely & green but often without flowers…especially if the Council has mown it. (Why don’t they put their efforts & man power into fixing the pot holes instead of vandalising the bee habitats with a tractor mower?)
See briefings 1295 about the National Ecosystems Assessment for the UK.
Pasture based Dairy farmers need to take a public stand & be vocal about their support for saving the bees & for increasing the biodiversity on farms. We are already leading the way but we need to speak up & be heard. We have plenty of opportunities to plant either roadside “Bee Roads”, keep bee hives on the farms or help stop local authority vandals from mowing the wild flowers when it is totally unnecessary.
Join my campaign to stop the Local Authority vandals & to plant your own wild flower Bee Road to help save the Honey Bees in the UK.
Current UK Pasture Measurements Pasture growth still very variable dependant on rain. Excellent summer growth in some areas but very little growth in the drier counties of Derbyshire, East Staffordshire & Oxfordshire.
TheAverage Pasture Cover (kgsDM/ha) & Pasture Growth (kgsDM/ha/day)
Scotland, South Ayrshire, AFC 2154, Pasture growth this week 100 kgsDM/ha/day
Shropshire, 2475, growth 46, cumulative YTD 5177kgsDM/ha same as last year.
East Staffordshire, 2100, gr 28, dem 35 little or no growth very dry
Derbyshire, 2142, gr 20, dem 59, V Dry, 2leaf PRG 40% DM of paddocks
Nottingham, gr 28, demand 59, 30 day round feeding maize
Oxfordshire, 1950, gr 15, dem 30 still V dry, topping was a bad idea
Gloucestershire, 2135, gr 66
Herefordshire, AFC 2100, growth 70, Demand 60
Pembrokeshire, AFC 2216, gr 74, steady growth for last 3 weeks
Dorset, 2500, gr43, dem 45 grazing chicory & Plantain milk yields up but MFat % down
East Sussex 2400, gr 85, cows all dry Holiday Time!!
Northern Germany organic, 2110, gr 65, growth increased after recent rain, 23 day round, 16 hr milkings Going really well!

Friday, 8 July 2011

Dairy Cow Fertility..UK Pasture Dairy Farmers Thrash Kiwi Counterparts

Pasture based dairy farmers in the Pasture to Profit network of Discussion Groups in the UK can now proudly claim “World Best Practice” in herd fertility. Most of the credit must go to the very good herdsmen & farm staff who understand the goals, whose observations are spot on & their determination to succeed & do better each year.

 The block calving herds (both spring & autumn calving herds) in a survey of 2010-11 calving seasons indicate incredibly good herd fertility levels & extremely good on farm management. The data was collected & analysed using the Australian InCalf Analysis which NZ has finally adopted too.  
The data collected from 35 herds (10548 cows) shows that on average 81% of the herd calved in the first 6 weeks of calving. 56% of the herd successfully calved in the 1st 3 weeks so that the av. Number of days until half the herd had calved was 18 days (Days to mid point after PSD (Planned Start Date)). The empty rate across these 35 herds was 11% after 12 weeks of mating. The average farm herd size was 365 cows & the actual replacement rate (2yr old heifers entering the herd) was 24%. These farmers can rightfully claim “World Best practice” as this incredibly good herd fertility has been achieved with no induction & minimal veterinary treatment (30% of these herds are now organic).The vast majority of dairy cows in these herds are now NZ bred (LIC genetics) & all herds have a very high % of crossbred cows e.g. NZ Friesian, NZ Jersey, Kiwi Cross genetics.
The data I have collected suggests that the OAD herds have higher herd fertility as measured by the number of cows in calf in the first 6 weeks. The OAD herds are over 90% with a lower empty rate.
The Discussion Group target performance in the UK for herd fertility/Calving pattern analysis is 80% to calve in the 1st 6 weeks & the target for heifers calving at 22 months is for 75% to calve in the 1st 3 weeks of the calving.
Why are the Kiwis falling behind? New Zealand seasonal dairy herds are falling well short of the UK pasture based dairy farmers & are failing to meet their own dairy industry targets. How can this be when we are using the same semen & farming in a very similar way using a low input pasture based system. In the June edition of the NZ Dairy Exporter (Page 102) 1 highly respected NZ Vet Chris Burke wrote of the herd fertility in NZ & in particular at the well known Lincoln University Dairy Farm. His best estimate of the current NZ dairy herd fertility was that 64-65% of cows calve in the 1st 6 weeks (predominantly spring calving) which is below the industry’s target of 78%. LUDF had 67% calving in the 1st 6 weeks. In a survey of 16 herds the average empty rate was 13%.
You might well ask “what an earth is going on in NZ?” Why is the on farm performance so poor?

It pays to measure & monitor your progress! While NZ performance is now both below par & declining the UK farmers are rapidly improving. Pasture to Profit Discussion Group members (approx 300) will be rightly proud of the astonishing progress made over the past decade in the UK.

In 2002 I conducted a similar survey shortly after my arrival in the UK. At that time fertility in the pasture based dairy farms was not good. Many herds had a high percentage of Holsteins in the herds & farmers were in transition from spread calving patterns to tighter block calving. Discussion group members will now be horrified to realise that the analysis I conducted in 2002 was based on a 21 week calving block. The results of that 2002 survey were that on average 49% of the cows calved in the 1st 6 weeks. Days from PSD to Mid Point was 71 days (wow!). The NIC rate after 21 weeks was 13%. Only 31% of heifers calved in the 1st 3 weeks but interestingly the empty rate was 11.4% (but after 21 weeks of mating).

So how have the UK pasture based dairy farmers achieved such amazing results in an incredibly short period of time (considering the starting point was with poor fertility Holsteins)? Apart from the obvious care & attention to the basics of dairy cow fertility which must be the focus of every dairy farmer. I think the key issues have been, firstly, that herd fertility has been a focus of farm management & Discussion Group attention & analysis. This is one area of farm management that has benefitted hugely by the regular analysis & Discussion Group competitiveness. Secondly the cross breeding with highly fertile NZ bulls & LIC semen (although this doesn’t explain the NZ decline). The intense culling of infertile cows, that fall outside of the 12 week block. Another factor is the care & attention given to Cow Body Condition (CCS) pre & post calving. And lastly the front end loading of the calving pattern with the heifers. This last issue is a “could do much better” as we still are only achieving 67% calving in the 1st 3 weeks when our target is 75%. However the best herds now have over 90% of heifers calving in the 1st 3 weeks….very good calf & heifer rearing (weighing heifers regularly).

Although the 2002 study was sent to the MDC (read DairyCo) it appears to have been ignored as overall dairy cow fertility levels in the UK continue to decline.
Congratulations pasture based dairy farmers on achieving “World Best Practice” I’m very proud of what we have achieved together. As for the Kiwis….”catch up as you are being left behind your UK counterparts who are now much more efficient”.
Current UK Pasture Measurements
Pasture growth still very variable dependant on rain. If you've had rain you've got very good growth if not pasture growth is still slow. Organic farms struggling with poor clover growth due to colder soils than normal.
TheAverage Pasture Cover (kgsDM/ha) & Pasture Growth (kgsDM/ha/day)
Belfast, Northern Ireland, AFC 2150, pasture growth 75kgs/ha/day
Northern Ireland coastal, AFC 2300, Growth 74, demand 54 pregrazing 2800 cut & bale longer pasture
Dumfries, 2160, growth 90, dem 48 just right rain, quality improving
Cumbria, 2419, growth 88
North Wales, 2044, growth 47, demand 50

Cheshire organic 2050, gr 27, V Dry feeding 2.8kgs 35 day round
Shropshire organic, 1805, gr 29 no significant rain but when it comes clover will take off big time!
Staffordshire, 2488, gr62 now made more silage than last yr grazing stubble turnips
East Staffordshire, 2100, gr 30 raining now pre mowing some paddocks
Nottingham, gr 20, dem 60, feeding maize 30 day rotation V Dry
Somerset Organic, 2300, gr 35, 30 mm rain today
Oxford, 2085, gr 40, dem 40, had drop of rain
Dorset 2345, gr 35 but rain last 2 days grazing forage rape
Pembrokeshire organic, 2170, gr 58, demand 48, clover kicking in
Pembrokeshire, 2030, gr 63 had rain this week expect growth to increase
East Sussex, 2300, gr 70, grass getting out of control about to dry cows off
Cornwall, 2450, gr 65, cows on OAD feeding turnips more silage to cut
Cornwall, AFC 2200, growth 102 (this is not England surely!)
Limerick Ireland, AFC 2600, growth 90, taking out silage bales.