Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Drought again, My learning curve on how to deal with dry summers.
In 2015 I was privileged to go on the Positive Farmers tour of grass based dairy farms in New Zealand. We saw some of the top 2% grass farmers still grazing with little or no inputs.
One farm we went to in Taupo, owned by Colin Armer of the Armer Group farming 14,000 dairy cows over 15 farms and 3 support blocks throughout New Zealand. They have a very simple, successful policy of targeting the maximum profit per hectare, not yield per cow. The particular farm we visited had 950 dairy cross bred cows with only 3 people tending to the cows, split into 3 herds, for most of the year.
In contrast to other farms we visited where perennial ryegrass swards were shining in the spring sunshine, I was shocked to see grass similar to our permanent pasture. Admittedly the grass was grown on volcanic soils but had naturalised to the pressure from the intensive system it was grown under. The farm motto was “No supplements made and none offered “.
This meant there was no silage made and no silage or concentrates fed out in the summer dry period or the “shoulders of the year”. This was with 3.5 cows to the hectare and tight block calving. So, the guys would strip graze a paddock and leave a bit at the end of the paddock for the next rotation. Thereby making the subsequent rotation longer and again in the next rotation as the year progresses. That's why we didn’t see much ryegrass, but the grasses reflected the working environment like the cows, utilitarian and most important, profitable.
We saw other farms on the tour, where it seemed irrigation was the new supplement. Meaning, when it turned dry, where we would start feeding, they would turn on the taps. And that water, pumped through a pivot irrigator costing $1 / kg MS was not cheap. All farms where high utilisers of grass and had very efficient cross bred cows producing high milk solids from high yielding pastures grown with plenty of fertiliser
On my return I read Andre Voisin’s book- Grass productivity, an introduction to Rotational Grazing written in 1959, in the halcyon days of grass production prior to perennial ryegrass being the dominator of all swards. It describes his experiments and experiences rotating through paddocks on various numbers of days’ rest. Using old fashioned grass species such as cocksfoot and timothy as well as white clover. He proved that periods of rest was most important, followed by the period of time for grazing should not allow for a regrazing of regrown grass and lastly grass should be at its most nutritious state at time of eating. I learnt by focusing on rotation length, a fixed rotation around the farm works best. It inspired me to carry forward a wedge of grass to feed out during the summer dry period. where perennial ryegrass would go to head if dry or rot if it did rain. It would also require feeding. A more traditional mixture of grass species will behave better.
Followers grazing organic Herbal ley during the 2018 Drought
During the last dry period of 2018, I was able to put my experiences of the NZ tour and Andre’s words into practice. I was managing cows in Oxfordshire on a share farm agreement. The soils were a very poor Cotswold brash and the farm was mixture of dairy, beef and arable enterprises. Resulting in four-year leys prior to arable crops. I managed the grazing of the dairy cows, youngstock and beef animals. Focusing on the older replacements and beef animals, they were combined into one herd and two paddocks had been sown, one,10 hectares to a herbal ley and the other ,7 hectares a simple mix of red clover and Italian ryegrass.
The stock were 42 two year old in- calf heifers and beef animals, grazing 12 kg dm day of forage on the 17 hectares and with strip grazing a fresh daily allocation of herbage. Back fencing was employed to protect regrowth, I kept them grazing over 50 days with no supplement to stock or to pasture. As the regrowth was sufficient to keep going, I grazed the stock for 2 rotations, but by then it was September and growth rates dropped off. Silage aftermaths had become available and I was able to elongate the rotation going into the autumn.
Working the figures back, this meant pasture growth was over 30 kg dm ha with little or no rain over the 50 days, with a stocking rate for two rotations was 2.5 cows/ha Three year calving meant they were the size of a normal cross bred cow. The stock gained condition, looked well as they had time for rumination in the afternoon with water and minerals always available.
Perennial ryegrass seems to be letting us down in these periods of summer dry with little to no rain. The introduction and utilisation of herbal leys, diverse swards and permanent pasture will allow us to keep stock grazing without copious fertiliser rates or supplementation on moderate stocking rates. Its just very important to stick to the main principles that we all should already know!
Rest the plant, spend the least Time in the paddock and graze the plant when Nutritious.
(But have a silage clamp full before you transition, just in case.)
Last week it went to two farms in Wiltshire, combating the dry weather well.
Jonny and Rachael Rider near Devizes are accomplished grass farmers and organic regenerative farmers.
Also, once a day milkers of spring calving cross bred dairy cows supplying high quality milk for cheese production, as well as selling highly fertile breeding bulls.
Herbal leys were on long rotations going from 30 to 45 days, but producing enough Forage for 100% grass fed regime. Utilisation was great with no selective grazing happening and stock moving on quickly. Covers for the cows to go into looked fantastic.
The second farmer, George Hosier also farming regeneratively and holding covers well in the dry weather. Hereford Suckler cows looked great and calves growing well. They are spring calving and also calving over 6 weeks, proving that there’s some fertility in the Wiltshire Downs!
The Herbal leys were undersown into Spring Barley with ryegrass, this makes up for a third of the farm, the other 2/3 is arable with cover crops employed to keep soil biology active. Soil organic matter has increased from 2.5% to 7% on loss of ignition tests.
160 head in total mostly kept in one mob and finishing occurring around 26 months on the same herbage as the herd, from 100% grass. Rotation length 50 days.