Zero-grazing can be a viable option – but it is not a one-size fits all solution for dairy farmers.

This system, in which livestock are fed without involving any time at pasture, is used on many dairy farms across the UK as an alternative or supplementary to grazing and silage-based milk production systems.

Philip Cosgrave, the chief grassland agronomist at Yara, reckoned it is viable: “Increasing herd sizes and the need to reduce feed costs by producing more milk from forage is driving farmers to new ways of utilising grass.

“Zero grazing offers farmers greater flexibility, especially those with limited grazing capacity around the milking parlour. It is more labour intensive, but it is an option worth considering.”

According to research at AFBI in Northern Ireland, zero-grazed grass showed improved cow performance, compared to grazed or silage fed systems, with zero-grazed fed cows also maintaining heavier live weights over the course of the study.

A key determiner of success in any systems is grass/silage utilisation per hectare. Margin over feed costs per ha was greatest (£3580) for zero-grazed cattle, while the silage fed group came out slightly below this and the grazing group was even lower. The reason for this was the higher stocking rates of the indoor groups which more than compensated for the lower per cow feed costs attributed to the grazing group.

Key to the performance was by utilising quality grass and Mr Cosgrave added: “Zero-grazing is absolutely a viable alternative, but only with excellent grassland management.

“Harvesting covers of not greater than 3500kg DM/ha is preferable to reach these performance levels in zero-grazed herds. Harvesting grass at pre-harvest covers of 4500kg DM/ha rather than 3500kg DM/ha led to a decrease in cow performance and grass growth, estimated at 57p per cow/day.

“Zero-grazing is worth investigating to determine whether it’s right for your farm – when combined with exceptional grassland management, the results speak for themselves,” he said.