Dairy farmer, Robin Young, has improved feed quality and saved money with his approach to grassland management, making the most of grazed grass at his farm outside Dunblane.

As part of AHDB’s Forage for Knowledge programme, Robin has measured and tested grazed grass every week for the past seven years with the result that he has learnt that Waterside Farm is capable of producing quality grass, plus 12-tonnes of DM/ha from its grazing paddocks.

“I grow more grass than I ever thought I could,” he confirmed. “We have shortened winter housing and spring turnout is now in March (March 19 this year), not the traditional April 20. We started plate metering in 2013 and joined AHDB’s Forage for Knowledge programme as a benchmark to start with and it grew from that. It made sure we understood how the grass plant grows and how quickly.”

Mr Young runs a 180-cow cross-bred herd, block calving in autumn, plus 107 followers, on his all-grass farm covering 102ha. Soils are fairly light and free-draining and receive an annual rainfall of 1000-1100mm (40-44 inches).

A further 15ha are rented for youngstock grazing. Average yield is 7000 litres, with 3700 litres from forage and 1.5 tonnes of cake/cow.

The cows have a grazing platform of 56ha divided up into 28 paddocks. By grazing ryegrass in rotation, moving to a fresh paddock every day, it is kept leafy and vegetative which prevents it from getting stemmy and running to seed. It is this leafy grass that is 12 ME and highly palatable, so cows will graze it down.

“Grass is pretty consistent through the season and you can’t afford to buy a cake of that quality spec': 12-13 ME and way into the 20s for crude protein % (it was 27.5% this spring). I always thought August grass was inferior, but when you graze it tight and grow it to 2800kg DM/ha, it is still much the same quality, so you get spring grass all year round,” explained Mr Young.

Data from Scottish dairy farms shows that well-managed grass yields 15.3-17.9 tonnes DM/ha/year. Individual paddocks on Waterside’s platform produce 11.5-13.0 tonnes DM/ha, with growth rates of 100-120 kgDM/ha/day in June.

Compared to the national average, Mr Young feels he probably needs to do more reseeding to see what a difference it would make, having concentrated so far on renewing old permanent pasture. He makes 1200-1300 tonnes of silage each year, which is unchanged from when the herd had just 120 cows, reflecting the greater intakes of grazed grass.

Weekly grass measurements with a plate meter are used in a grazing software package to work out how much grass is available ahead of the cows. This helps to allocate grazing area on a daily basis, decide whether there is a surplus that needs to be made into silage, or realise that a deficit is looming and concentrates, or silage need to be fed.

While the herd moves paddocks on a daily basis to avoid poaching, Mr Young explains: “You have to be careful with ground conditions as cows can penetrate and damage soil structure when walking to graze.

"Waterside farm has a good infrastructure and has spruced up tracks with a topping of Astroturf which has reduced lameness caused by stones which caused sole bruising.”

Because cows can get anywhere on a track silage ground has been brought into the grazing rotation when needed. Protecting regrowth has improved grass utilisation and added another 500 litres onto the herd average, bringing it up from 6500 litres without increasing cake usage.

For Mr Young, looking to start his next calving season, grazing management will continue to be developed by his contract manager. “We have measured and benchmarked and learned a lot.

"You wouldn’t feed a TMR without knowing its nutritional content, so that’s why analysing grazed grass works. We were paddock grazing here 50 years ago, the difference now is that we have the tools to measure it and the software,” he commented.

*AHDB’s Forage for Knowledge programme involves 31 dairy farms across Britain, reflecting a range of weather patterns, soil types and topography. All are rotationally paddock grazing and measure weekly throughout the growing season from February to November. Sign up at ahdb.org.uk/knowledge-library/forage-for-knowledge

The AHDB Grass campaign aims to help producers make better use of home-grown grass swards, both grazed and conserved. For more information visit https://ahdb.org.uk/ahdb-grass-news