Meet the farm manager – Phil Asbury

Phil AsburyWelcome to Clive Hall Farm, which is to be Cheshire’s first Dairy monitor farm.

Clive Hall is a 62 ha farm, operating a spring block calving, grass based system that is currently one of Andrew Fletcher’s (Fletcher & Co) contract farming businesses, with the farm being managed by me, Phil Asbury.

Regular updates from me or farm meetings facilitator Leslie Innes about progress on the farm will be posted below throughout the year…

For further information on how to get involved or attend future meetings, contact Leslie at Reaseheath College Tel: 01270 625 131 ext 308 Mobile: 07788 721 943 Email:

Final Open Day Report: Staying ahead of the curve!

The last year is one many in the industry would sooner forget, but for Phil Asbury, farm manager at Clive Hall Farm in Winsford, Cheshire, monitoring and measuring 2012 / 13 against the previous two years has produced many points to remember.

Phil AsburyThe 71ha extensive-grazing farm milks 210 Kiwi Friesian, Jersey and Swedish Red cross-bred cattle on a spring block calving system as one of six milking units contract managed by Cheshire-based dairy farm management company Fletcher and Co (Grasslands).

Since March 2010 Clive Hall has been a central point for farmer discussion as one of six monitor farms selected through the RDPE Northwest Livestock Programme that were tasked with improving farm competiveness and sharing ideas with the farming community in the North West.

And despite an unpredictable last 12 months, unit manager Phil has still managed to turn in a better performance than he did the year before the programme started, by taking a structured approach to fertility, youngstock, lameness, milk produced from grazed grass and people management.

“The experience has really opened my eyes to a lot of things as we’ve dug deeper into areas like calf management, lameness and mobility. Fertility has been the over-riding driver of how the farm and cows perform which has been undermined by lameness.” 

Phil Asbury

How the monitor farm process started… and introduction to lean management

Dr Kay CarsonA small steering group saw Phil, Grasslands managing director Andrew Fletcher, local farmers and industry representatives, set out to establish the farm’s objectives. The group helped to identify specialists to meet these goals and struck upon the principles of lean management and the work of agricultural economist Dr Kay Carson.

Phil has worked closely with Dr Carson to look at the milk production process on the farm as a whole – addressing animal health with farm vet Bridget Taylor and Ed Hayes from Wright and Morten Vet Group, nutrient management with Promar and travelling further afield for specialist knowledge on grassland with trips to Moorepark in Ireland and speakers organised through DairyCo.

This structured approach to direct decision-making takes the form of a daily diary that Phil completes on his laptop. By inputting data taken from a combination of sources, it has helped point out problems in herd health before they become too serious, identify potential holes in his grazing platform and stay ahead of the curve.

Grassland management

Phil walks the whole farm once a week with a plate meter and measures grass when the cows go in and come out of a paddock. The quality of grass has to be at its best at all times, with cows put in at 2,700 kg DM/ha and taken out at 1,300 on the first round,1,550 later in the year, returning for as long as necessary to ensure they graze down to the required residual as paddocks range in size from 1ha to 7.5ha. The farm is closed up at 2,150kg DM/ha in late November for the three months cows aren’t at grass.

The farm didn’t really have a focussed reseeding policy until three years ago and now annually reseeds 10% of the land each spring. Clive Hall is in an NVZ area and a trailing shoe is used to spread slurry as much as they can. 10,000 concrete sleepers link the fields and electric fencing is widely used to fully utilise grass and access grazing at the shoulders of the year.

He said: “You can’t miss grazing a paddock right down twice in a row as it will hit growth later on in the year. You can’t afford to leave grass behind in the field and let cows go lazy.

“The programme we use plots grass cover across the farm as a curve and as soon as you see a dip approaching you do something to try and flatten the hole out by opening the clamp or increasing corn.”

“If grass goes above 2,700 kg we’ll take it out of rotation and silo it, cutting at 3,500 to 4,000kg, but we have to make sure we don’t jump in with two feet too soon as the grass is far more cost effective grazed than shut up in the clamp.”

The farm reached its target of utilising 12t DM/ha at 12MJ ME in 2011 and saved 0.45ppl on feed and forage costs as a result. In fact April 2011 to April 2012 was a great year. Income rose by 1.88ppl and costs were reduced by 1.12ppl to make a bottom line improvement of 3.00ppl on a million litres milked.

DairyCo’s MilkBench figures for three years saw the farm’s net margin increase from 5.96ppl in 2009/10 to 8.99ppl in 2011/12. Admittedly strong milk prices saw margins rise for everyone but Clive Hall’s increased faster than the top 10% and almost caught up due to improvements made in milk from grazed grass.

Feed budgeting over the last 12 months

2012/13 has been a different story and planned feed budgets of 600kg per head based on the previous good year have been blown apart for a farm so heavily reliant on grass and is closer to 1,000kg, yet despite poor grass growth this spring and an unprecedented wet summer, results suggest they’ve still done better than 2009.

Speaking at the farm’s final monitor farm open day in May, Phil said: “It’s the first time I’ve been able to see 10 days grass in front of me. Milk is now dead level at 24 litres and hopefully we can maintain that now as we’re past peak milk output.

“April last year we were producing 27 litres of milk (per cow per day) off 15 kilos of grass and two kilos of corn. This April we were doing 18 litres off 6kg of silage, 7kg of corn and 3kg of grass!”

The cows are mobility scored once a month and condition scored three times a year. This, along with data on mastitis cases, calf weights and fertility makes for more informed decision making.


Bridget Taylor and Phil AsburyFertility was first addressed in 2009 when the farm had a health plan carried out by SAC Consulting and Wright and Morten Vets who moved the farm to a block calving pattern. The farm now aims to have 90% served in the first 20 days, averaging 10 cows a day.

Cows are PD’d in September and dried off early December, where they are condition scored, vaccinated for BVD, IBR and treated for fluke. All the cattle are given a trace element bolus before going on to a crop of beet where there may be deficiencies. This year silage bales supplemented a poor beet crop but didn’t fully fill the hole.

Cows calve on a straw yard with very few assisted births, very little milk fever and few retained cleansings are seen. Getting cows back in to calf has been helped by setting up a once-a-day milking group for lame, poorer condition and late calving cows.

Phil says condition scoring is an important job that he doesn’t do as he believes he would have too biased an opinion, so this is done by David Heath one of Grasslands’ directors. He also has 10 days of grazing planned at any one time so the herdsman knows which paddocks to use and when.

Data isn’t sexy but monitoring makes business sense

Planning ahead, monitoring results and looking for trends now plays a big part in Phil’s working week. Five years ago there was only one computer in the company but now all Grasslands’ farmers use them to fill in their daily diary.

They’ve needed support and encouragement to do it and time sat in the office hasn’t come naturally, but Phil now spends 20% of his working week on the business rather than solely in the business.

He said: “Data isn’t a sexy subject and it took me 12 months to get my head around it. It wasn’t until the second year when I had something to compare back to that it started to make sense. 

“Hans Johr, Nestle’s Corporate Head of Agriculture, visited us last year and seemed interested in what we were doing. He’d been to one of the other six milking units who’ve just started the diary and described them as being at the learning to walk stage, whereas he thought we were now at the learning to read and write stage.


“We’ve opened the door and stepped through in to the big room, now we’ll see where we can go from here. The experience has really opened my eyes to a lot of things as we’ve dug deeper into areas like calf management, lameness and mobility. Fertility has been the over-riding driver of how the farm and cows perform which has been undermined by lameness.” 

Phil Asbury


Mobility and youngstock

Generally 80 to 90% of the herd mobility score at 0-1 with just one or two niggling cows and poor access to a particular paddock causing problems. The cows are foot bathed regularly and a foot trimmer is employed to carry out preventative work.

Attention to youngstock has also been a success. Bridget said: “We’ve seen a big drop off in antibiotic sales at the practice due to better colostrum feeding. Phil has a snatch calf strategy and getting four litres of milk in the first six hours is of the utmost importance.”

The calves are put in pens of five and fed colostrum for the first three feeds. Raw milk not powder is used but not from heifers with unknown Johnes status. Pens are then gradually increased in size to 40 head and are out in the field from mid-March on a milk buggy with as much grass and corn as possible. Calves are then weighed for target weights at three, six and nine weeks and should be double their birth weight at 60 days. The farm aims to have all heifer replacements at 300kg at bulling.

The monitor farm programme has been delivered in Cheshire by Reaseheath College, with Myerscough College and Cumbria Farmer Network facilitating the same meetings on farms in Lancashire and Cumbria respectively.

DairyCo has provided technical support for all the dairy monitor farms in the North West. They now hope to work with Dr Carson to develop Lean Management further with farms across the country.

                                                                          2009/10             2010/11             2011/12

Average number of cows milked                      185                    187                    201

Number of full dairy grass grazing wks             41                      44                     37

Dairy Feed (kg fresh weight)                             202,300             290,500            167,000

Dairy Forage (kg fresh weight)                         750,000              1,274,000         984,000

Total milk produced (litres)                               944,236              937,833            1,066,­972

Total milk production cost (ppl)                        22.25                  23.67                22.55

Net Margin (ppl)                                                5.96                     6                      8.99

Net Margin (£/ha)                                              750                      810                  1,383

Income UP (ppl)                                                -                          29.67                31.48

Costs DOWN (ppl)                                           -                          23.67                22.55


% empty cows at 200 days post calving     

2009          2010             2011            2012  TARGET 10%                          

18%           11%              9%               13%

YEAR     Yield / cow      Concentrates / cow (kg)       Milk / cow from grass and forage

2009/10         5,104                              855                                     3,481 litres

2010/11         5,015                              1,351                                  2,448 litres

2011/12         5,308                              683                                     4,010 litres

2012/13*        4,800*                           1,000*                                  2,900* litres

*Provisional data

Calf weights: current practices and proposed action for the future

Replacement dairy heifers for Clive Hall farm and other Grassland Solutions Group Farms (Fletcher and Co) are currently reared at pasture on whole milk.

The monitor farm’s next meeting will look at this topic on October 18th at Marlheath Farm, Fanshawe Lane, Henbury, Cheshire, SK11 9PL  Further Details >>

This follows the group’s trip to Moorepark Research Centre in Ireland on September 19th and 20th.

Calves receive approximately four litres of milk/day and supplementary corn is offered if necessary. Until April 2012, heifer calves have been weaned ‘by eye’ or by weigh banding at 10-12 weeks old; basically picking out those which are biggest and strongest, as oppose to analysing measurable data.

The benefits of heifers reaching target weight at calving are numerous and widely recognised and we believe that reaching weaning targets is surely the first area to focus on to ensure that mature target weight is achieved.

Heifer weights are not only important for their fertility but are vital as they enter the milking herd; a heifer that is 10% underweight at calving will produce 10% less milk compared to those at optimum weight and this trend will continue throughout their milking life. In order to ensure all animals calving in their second lactation are at weight and in good condition, all first lactation animals are to be dried off 12 weeks prior to calving with further weeks added for low body condition or lameness issues.

We have now started to weigh calves at monthly intervals using a digital Tru-Test weigh pad and track individual liveweight gains. Calf weights and gains are compared against a target weight chart following research conducted at Moorepark, Ireland.

This year we are on ‘catch up’ and calves are not being weaned at the typical age; the duration of milk and corn feeding is somewhat longer than usual as we try to get the animals to target weight. Analysis of calf weights has proven to be extremely useful in planning feeding strategies at different stages of the calf rearing program and has allowed us to adjust current feeding practices to maximise attainment of targets.

The reason our calves are ‘underweight’ is thought to be attributable to an in-balance in three key areas and we propose to address this in the following ways:

  1. If calves are housed in early spring then they must receive ad lib corn and water at all times.
  2. Calves at pasture require unlimited amounts of the highest quality pasture on the farm which can be achieved by rotating them frequently in front of the cows. This requires attention to the fences on the units to make this possible.
  3. Ensuring calves are able to eat as much corn/meal as they require. We are currently investigating whether or not we can wean calves off milk at a slightly lighter weight and feed corn to increase liveweight gains above desired to hit target weight prior to service.


We will continue to weigh calves frequently and re-group them with others of similar weight; a useful method to prevent growth suppression in smaller individuals through them being pushed out when competition is high.

The fact that we now are able to accurately weigh and monitor calf growth is helping us make management changes to improve what we do in the future so as to promote growth. Additional monitoring of feed intake will aid us in establishing an economical calf rearing program with high growth performance.

Jessica Ross, Youngstock Manager at Grassland Solutions Farms

Video 2: Cheshire Dairy Monitor Farm improves milk margin by £30,000

In this second video from the Cheshire Dairy Monitor Farm, Phil Asbury, with the help of Agricultural Economist Dr Kay Carson, explains how attention to detail and closely monitoring costs and inputs has improved performance at Clive Hall, giving farmer Phil control over all his processes to make better informed decisions.

This “Lean Management” approach has moved a margin from 7p to 10p on a million litres of milk – which is an extra £30,000! (Filmed Spring 2012)

OPEN DAY REPORT: Monitor farm goes to war to get results

Even the best laid plans can go astray, it’s knowing when and what to change to get things back on track that brings real results.

This is what monitor farmer Phil Asbury had to say about the “lean management” approach the farm has taken to forage and milk production, the informed decisions he’s been able to make and the 23% net margin per litre increase he’s seen in the last year as a result.

Phils Asbury discusses pasture management with the group

Phils Asbury discusses pasture management with the group

Clive Hall dairy monitor farm near Winsford is part of the Grassland Solutions group (Fletcher & Co) that also has farms in other parts of Cheshire and Shropshire. Managing director Andrew Fletcher praised the project saying that “real results were starting to benefit the farm business”.

More grass, more silage = more milk and profit

In the last 12 months the farm has grown more grass, made more silage (41ha more), fed less corn (down from 900kg/cow to 800kg/cow) yet produced more milk (Up from 4,600 l/cow to 5,100 l/cow) and profit (7.1ppl to 10.5ppl) – and it’s all down to the “informed decisions” he’s been able to make.

Battle plan

It is 20 months (June 2010) since Dr Kay Carson introduced Clive Hall farm to the data collection needed to base these performance making decisions, a process the dairy specialist likens to battle planning in war.

Dr Kay Carson

Dr Kay Carson

“We started the year with a ‘lean’ budget which listed every input and every output, with its associated cost or income, month by month. At all times we could see the money spent against milk output and compare them against the budget plans. If targets were not met, we made the necessary changes to input use to try to get cost of production back on track the next month.

“You’ve heard the saying: ‘in war no battle plan survives contact with the enemy’”, Kay told the recent Open Day at the RDPE Northwest Livestock Programme Dairy Monitor farm in Cheshire. As, without a plan to guide decision making, you cannot react to events in a way that will deliver your objectives.

“It’s all about minimising unit costs. This year at Clive Hall this has meant keeping costs constant and getting more production out of them by minimising waste.”

And the biggest results this year have come from Phil’s attention to silage production – in quality, quantity and how efficiently it was produced:

“In 2010 we made light silage cuts as and when paddocks were available, which resulted in high contracting costs per tonne of DM produced. This year I utilised the contractor better by improving my grass growth predictions, using plate meter readings and the Kingswood grassland management programme. This meant we made heavier cuts of silage without compromising the grazing rotation.

“We budgeted to make 14ha of silage but actually made 55 ha of silage as clamp and bales for the year which made a big difference. We also left slightly higher residuals which made a difference in how fast the grass recovered and improved allocation of grass to cows.”

Phil went on to tell the visitors, “With the Kingswood system I can make ‘what if’ scenarios, which helps me make informed decisions, as we can see what the result will be if the weather changes or other inputs alter.”

In summary

• 41ha more silage made than budgeted for which has reduced the need to purchase as much forage as first thought
• The farm grew 13 tonnes DM/ha of grass (one tonne more than last year)
• Used contractors a lot more efficiently, reducing contracting costs per tonne of DM produced.
• Fed 100kg corn/cow less than last year (down from 900kg to 800kg) – average corn price £198t, saving £19.8/cow and £4,158 across the herd
• Produced 5,100 l/cow, up from 4,600 l/cow last year
Geoff Booth, Operations Manager with Grassland Solutions, commented “If we can grow and utilise a further ton of DM per ha, we can potentially drop corn by a further 290 kg per cow. Some of this will have to be made into silage because of grazing quality, but still results in 61 tonnes less of purchased feed be it corn or silage.”

Other things changed this year that have worked:

• Raising pre-grazing height from 2500 kg DM/ha to 2600-2700 kg DM/ha, and leaving slightly higher residuals (1550 kg DM/ha), subject to grass growth predictions
• Improved allocation of grass and better use of corn
• Improved use of Kingswood computer package to make better informed decisions and “what if scenarios” to stay ahead of the game.
• Improved herd health – mastitis, lameness and disease control
• A mature herd (14% of herd first calvers) contributed to milk output improvement

So what happened this year?

The farm got off to a good start in February at turn-out as Phil carried surplus grass through the winter remarkably well, given the hard frost and snow of 2010/11.

Cows were out at grass day and night from 14th of February, fed 7 kg DM/ cow of grass and 6 kg of corn and 2 kg of silage until mid-March (no silage was fed from March to October).

From early to mid-April cows were fully fed 14 kg of grass and 4 kg of corn, which went to 16 kg grass dry matter and 2 kg corn from late April to mid-October.

No prolonged drought period, with a recorded rainfall of 4.3 mm of rain per day between April and October; this contributed to good grass growth.

Improvements to be made in 2012/13

• Reduce number of late calvers / tighten spring calving to 11 weeks
• Continue to improve yield
• Reduce lameness – currently mobility scoring 92% as 0 and 1s, 3% score 2s and 5% score 3. Need to reduce score 3s to 0% by improving tracks and surfaces.
• Continue to improve fertility
• Try to reduce corn use
• Grow 14 tonnes DM/ha of grass
• Re-seed 10% of the farm each spring / Improve soil nutrients and compaction with sub-soiling as part of the reseeding programme

Ed Hayes

Ed Hayes

Farm vet Ed Hayes from Macclesfield-based Wright and Morten (part of the XL Vets group) was also at hand to give an honest, open and systematic approach to costing vet time and work on farm using the same lean management principles.

He broke down the jobs he does on farm into two categories, the ones he wants to charge for and sees as having the most benefit on farm – such as disease screening, vaccines, fertility work and preventative measures, and the ones he doesn’t want to be charging for – such as emergency out of hours cases and crisis situations, as those cases don’t see as much value for money for time spent. The message being prevention rather than cure.

Ed said: “Through being a monitor farm we now have more data and more figures to work with and time to assess issues with Phil. Two to three years ago we were guessing as to what the problems were but now we are working with stats and figures to make more informed decisions.

“Clive Hall is just above UK average on vet spend, but we do a lot of fertility work and I’m proud of the pence per litre profitability figures. We’ve been able to alter the breakdown of spend and make better use of vet time to improve production.

“Reducing disease takes time to see results come through but we’re seeing it go in the right direction.”

In the war on costs to improve profits, Clive Hall now has the Lean Management principles and approach in place to use the data that is collected to meet the financial aspirations of Phil and his team at Grassland Solutions.

(Report by Adrian Capstick)

Polish your assets and prepare to improve profits

Asset review – it sounds dry and boring, but this is what good businesses do to maximise profits by responsibly optimising how they use their resources.

Dairy farmers should be no different. This was the main message from a recent open discussion meeting at Clive Hall, the Cheshire dairy monitor farm.

So, which assets need polishing to make more profit…

Take a step back

According to Dr Kay Carson of Streamline Farm Management, assets, and how they are managed, are the resources that drive a business.

“Profits are a measure of how efficiently resources are being used – and efficiency means maximising their value and minimising waste.”

Farm manager Phil Asbury

Farm manager Phil Asbury

Kay has been working with Clive Hall farm manager Phil Asbury at the Fletcher and Co grassland solutions farm, helping to focus management on what drives profit.

She said: “A full review of farm assets should happen annually, so that you can plan improvements, implement changes, check your progress and take actions.”

The main areas to consider in this type of grazing-based system are:
• Herd Health
• Tracks and buildings
• Soil and grassland
• Labour
• Machinery and equipment
• Feed and forage
• Fertility
• Milking and parlour

“For this type of grazing-based business, the tracks, soil and grassland are more important than housing and machinery, but efficiencies can be gained throughout most businesses,” added Kay.

The Open Meeting focussed on labour, herd health and soil/grassland.

Robust and healthy herd

“Our aim is to have a robust and healthy herd,” said Phil. “In the last 12 months this has meant focussing on scouring calves and lameness. With the calves, we were spending too much time looking after poorly animals, so we have started to tube every calf with three to four litres of colostrum and increased the frequency of bedding.

“In 2010 16% of calves were treated for scours and 90% of calves born alive reached weaning. In 2011, following the changes, we only treated 4% for scours and 95% born alive were weaned.”

Farm vet Ed Hayes of the Wright Morten practice in North Cheshire added, “This current herd health asset review is showing us that we have made good progress on lameness incidence, but we need to keep going on lameness treatment and prevention to get the current 5% of cows at score 3 on the DairyCo Mobility Score, down to zero.

“Our target is 90% at score 0/1 (currently 92% in the review), 10% at score 2 (currently 3%) and zero at score 3.

“We are also focussing on Johne’s, with a control plan in place. In 2011 the farm culled eight cows due to mastitis and we want to get that to zero by attention to detail on milking routine, using a dry wipe, looking at genetics, stopping chronic cases and good dry cow management.”

Ed concluded: “These actions come from reviewing the numbers and taking action to improve the herd as a business asset. The progress is all adding positively to the bottom line at Clive Hall.”

Get the right people into your business

Dairy farmer Ed Dale explains his approach to people management

Dairy farmer Ed Dale explains his approach to people management

Ed Dale, Cheshire dairy farmer, was very clear that the people working on his farms are a major asset and he looks for the sort of person that fits the culture he is developing.

“For me, the ‘right’ people are those that can fit in with and help us develop our culture. We want ambitious people that bring energy and persistence; they also need a positive attitude to go that extra mile and support their colleagues. And we want people who want to learn,” said Ed.

In terms of an asset review, David Heath told the meeting how this is handled in Grassland Solutions. “We want our staff to grow, so everyone has an annual review. This enables us to agree challenging and enjoyable targets. We review performance against last year’s targets before setting new ones for the coming year, and as our people grow, so does the business, in size and profitability.”

Start with soil to raise milk from grass

The basis for good grass growth and utilisation is achieving good soil condition, so the annual review of grassland management must start with the soil.

Andy Taylor of Promar International demonstrates how to review soil condition

Andy Taylor of Promar International demonstrates how to review soil condition

Andy Taylor of Promar International demonstrated to the Open Meeting what to look for when digging soil inspection pits.

“We should be digging in every field at the end of the season to look at soil condition,” explained Andy. “Good condition means well drained, crumbly soil, which is brown and smells ‘earthy’. There should be no compaction, so when the soil splits on your spade, it should break vertically; if it breaks horizontally, then compaction is an issue.

“Soil in poor condition will be wet, mottled with grey from waterlogging and might smell rancid. This is all common sense, but the impact of poor condition on reducing grass yield and grazing days will have a negative impact on the profitability of the business.”

The group also discussed the pros and cons of slot seeding versus ploughing to reseed and rejuvenate swards. The total operation cost for slot seeding might be only half that (£200 – £250/ha) of ploughing and reseeding (£400 – £500/ha), so if you can get results from slot seeding there are cost savings to be made.

However, as Andy pointed out, “If there are compaction issues, then ploughing can get rid of these and the expense will be paid back in extra grass growth. So it depends where you are starting from, which you will only know if you review soil condition in the first place.”

The Open Meeting clearly demonstrated that if you don’t review your assets and set targets, then you don’t know what to measure in the system to gain improvements.

If you don’t measure, then you can’t manage; if you can’t manage, then you are not in control; and it’s difficult to improve profitability when you are not in control of the system.

Young English enthusiasm meets Irish knowledge to tackle dairy details

A recent trip by 13 young dairy farmers and farm managers from the Northwest Livestock Programme’s Cheshire dairy monitor farm discussion group to the Irish Teagasc Dairy Research centre at Moorepark in County Cork, Ireland, sparked long enthusiastic discussion and detailed learning.

GRASS CHOICE: Mary McEvoy (far left) explains her work on grass varieties to the group

GRASS CHOICE: Mary McEvoy (far left) explains her work on grass varieties to the group

“These guys are the future of grazing based dairying in the UK and they got a lot out of this trip by sharing their passion and expertise; they know that you get out what you put in,” report facilitator Dr George Fisher and organiser Lesley Innes, from the RDPE Livestock Northwest programme, delivered throughout Cheshire and Merseyside by Reaseheath College.

Discussions among the group at the start of the trip highlighted their desire to get detailed information on three main topics: grazing management and grass varieties, outwintering, and disease control for herd health.

Grazing heights to get output per hectare and grass utilisation right

“There was a lot of talk at the last Positive Farming Conference that keeping residual grazing heights at 3.5cm through the season would get us to the right balance between grass utilisation, milk output per hectare and fertility, but we discovered that this isn’t right,” commented Ed Dale, who had a number of his farm managers on the tour.

Grazing research scientist Elodie Ganche explained, “We grazed paddocks down to 2.7 cm, 3.5 cm or 4.2 cm residual heights for the first two rotations, and then these paddocks were split and grazed at either 3.5cm or 4.5cm for the bulk of the season.

“2.7 cm was too tight and 4.2 cm too lax for spring grazing. Keeping at 3.5 cm all the way through utilised the most grass, but going from 3.5 cm in spring to 4.5 cm in the main season produced the highest grass and milk solids yields per hectare,” she concluded.

Geoff Booth, Operations Manager for Andrew Fletcher’s Grassland Solutions set of farms, summed up for the whole group, “We got the strong message that grazing residuals down to 3.5 cm in spring, then relaxing to 4.5 cm for the main season, and making sure that they are down at 3.5 cm again before the end of the season gets optimum cow fill, grass growth, grass utilisation and output per hectare, so that’s what we will be aiming for at home.”

Cows choose the best grass varieties

For many decades, new grass varieties have been tested for yield by simulating grazing with a mower cutting every four weeks. But are the varieties that are best under the cutting bar also the best under real grazing? After all, the action of grazing and feet with cows is very different from that of a mower.

This was the question that researcher Mary McEvoy is working to answer in a radical and detailed set of experiments. “The reason that we used mowers to simulate grazing is that doing experiments on a large scale with cows is very, very much more expensive. If different varieties perform in the same rank order under real grazing as they do under the mower, then we can have more confidence in our development of varieties to meet the practical needs of dairy farmers.” She added, “And farmers need grasses that don’t just yield, but are palatable and produce the best intakes and milk yields – and you can’t measure these with a mower.”

So, what is the answer? “This work is unique in the British Isles,” Mary continued. “And it’s telling us a mixed story on the rankings, and some powerful lessons in terms of production. The top two yielding varieties under the mower [AberMagic and AberChoice] were also the top two under real grazing, but the rankings for other varieties were not the same.”

Mary added, “This work is telling us that grazing intake is influence by a number of factors that do not work in isolation; little things that add up to make the difference. So varieties with high sugar content, higher leaf-to-stem ratio and larger leaves give better intakes, but the amount of leaf-to-stem is the most important. Farmers don’t tend to use just one variety in a field, but a tetraploid like Spelga will give 1.2 kg milk/cow/per day and 0.2 kg milk solids/cow/day more than a diploid variety like AberMagic; and whereas we can get grazing residuals down to 3.5cm with the tetraploids, we struggle to get below 4.2cm with the diploids.”

Monitor Farm facilitator Lesley Innes concluded: “A grazing sward needs a balance of varieties to suit the needs of the system; tetraploid and diploid, and various maturity classes. But this work is showing us how varieties really impact on milk production, and that’s exciting and useful.”

Bold and flexible approach works for outwintering

“There has not been much research on outwintering systems,” commented George Fisher after the group had discussed the issues involved. “And this applies to Moorepark too. The farmers are way ahead of the scientists and the great thing about a group like this is that they ask the right questions and share their knowledge to get the best answers, even in the absence of research data.”

Senior Researcher Paddy French told the group that, “Investing in cubicles and a slurry system can actually work out cheaper over 20 to 25 year period than going for outwintering pads, so we are seeing a shift away from pads in Ireland and most of the outwintering if with youngstock.” He added, “If this is done on the milking platform then we suggest outwintering on a mix of up to 70% fodder beet and 30% silage; off the milking platform, then you can go for forage kale.

The conclusion of the group was that they could go to 80% fodder beet / 20% silage for outwintering dairy stock, but this required a flexible approach – monitoring health and performance on a regular basis.

Handling diseases

Noel Byrne, who has a long career in dairy systems studies and analysis behind him, spoke to the group about a recent disease survey in The Republic of Ireland. Bulk milk and blood antibody testing from 320 herds revealed that there were high rates of exposure to IBR, BVD, Leptospirosis and Salmonella. “However, this type of survey picks up vaccinated herds as well, so it’s not easy to interpret results,” Noel explained.

“Animals with persistent disease, or PI’s, must be a focus in our control programmes,” he said. “You can buy a clean in-calve cow and she is OK, but she might be carrying a PI, so if you are going to vaccinate, you need to vaccinate all calves early. From testing 2,200 weanlings, we know that 40% of herds in Ireland have an ‘active’ BVD problem, and it’s pointless vaccinating if there are PI’s in the herd, because the vaccination will not cure them and they go on infecting the rest of the herd, so we urge farmers to identify and cull out the PI’s.”

The group wanted to discuss Johne’s control, but Noel explained that the disease is not prevalent in Ireland. However, Ed Hayes of Wright Morten vets was with the group and lead a session on the issues. Ed advised, “If you are serious about getting on top of Johne’s, then you have to follow a rigorous programme. Anything less may turn out to be a waste of time.” The programme should contain:

• Milk test all cows four times a year (results: Green = OK, Yellow = possibly infected, Red = Infected)

• Blood test red cows to confirm disease identification before culling

• Calve all green and yellow cows separately from red cows

• Identify daughters from red cows and decide their future

• Do not pool heifer colostrum to feed to calves

• Keep the calving yard clean

• Remove calves from the calving yard soon after birth

• Don’t pool and use colostrum from yellow and red cows

A place for automatic milkers in the field?

Perhaps the most radical work that the group were show at Moorepark was a systems study comparing a conventional and automatic milking in a spring block calving, grazing based system.

Steven Fitzgerald, Manager and researcher at the Dairygold Farm where the study is underway, explained the reasoning. “The objective is to integrate an automatic milking system (AMS) into a grazing system. The trial is on a 24ha grass milking platform, with 63 cows; it cost €175,000, which includes the AMS, concrete infrastructure and automatic shedding gates to make sure that the cows go to the right paddocks after milking.”

It took 4 days to train the cows to use the system, which seems a short time considering the furthest paddock is 400m away. “It works very well,” Steven told the group, “There is no difference between the different breeds in using the system; Friesians, Norwegian Reds and Jersey crosses have all used the system equally as well. The cows are milked 1.8 times per day on average and the practical outcome is that one person can operate this system, with time released for concentrating on the cows and working at alternative employment.”

Steven admits that the place for the system is probably where a farmer has alternative employment and the AMS allows them to hold down several jobs, otherwise the investment has a payback time which is too long.

Forthcoming meetings for autumn

Dairy MF discussion group (closed group), 20th September.
Topic: lameness and mobility scoring.

The group will discuss their herd’s foot care routine and the cost benefits of reducing lameness through mobility scoring and monitoring. The group will walk the host farm tracks for further discussions.

Dairy MF discussion group study trip 27th/28th September.
Moorepark Research Centre for Agriculture, Ireland.

Over the two day study trip the group will attend Moorepark Research Centre where presentations and discussions which will cover; animal health, out wintering and grazing management systems/grazing trials/grass varieties. Following the discussions, the group will visit Curtains Farm and one of the Dairygold farms. The Dairygold Demonstration Farms act as showcase units for the latest grassland, dairy husbandry and herd health practices from the Teagasc dairy research centre at Moorepark. This will allow the group to observe and discuss the research from an on farm perspective. These research farms provide an essential link between the development of new technology at research level and the adoption of these practices at farm level.

Open discussion meeting 3rd Nov, topic and full details to follow

Grass sample analysis work

Following the last steering group meeting, it has been decided that weekly grass samples will be sent for analysis in order to ascertain grass quality and nutritional value.

The analysis will look at values for DM, Crude Protein, ME and D Value. Further details to follow, weekly collection of data will be analysed and presented for discussion at the next Dairy Monitor Farm Open Discussion on November 3rd.