Switching to a separate heifer grazing platform

Friday, 16 August 2019

To reduce the Johne’s risk, yet still train his heifers to graze, Rupert Major has switched from a leader-follower system on the milking platform, to a separate heifer grazing platform. Calves no longer graze 10 days behind the cows, but are housed until after weaning and rotate around paddocks that have carried no adult stock.

“We used to have them out from about 4–6 weeks, feeding milk at grass. But now that we house them for longer, turning out at 10–12 weeks, I think we had inadequate shelter, so weren’t getting the liveweight gains,” says Rupert, who rears 200 heifers a year for his 650-crossbred, spring-calving herd in Staffordshire.

“Heifers graze in paddock rotation because we know we grow more grass, of higher energy and get higher utilisation. They are our most efficient converters of well managed pasture into growth: we feed less cake and make less silage. The goal is to present exactly the right quality and quantity of grass to grow our youngstock. If we get it right in their first year, they are fine in their second.”

It takes about a week to train calves to respect an electric fence, starting inside with some electric strands against a wall, followed by turnout into two very secure horse paddocks, each about one-third of an acre. “These paddocks have had no cows on and are surrounded by pig netting and hedges. We run a fence up the middle of the paddock, double stranded so they can’t dip under it, but they can see their mates and learn about fences splitting paddocks,” Rupert explains.

“We make water available three ways: using smaller, fixed troughs; piling hard core up to a big trough in one place so that calves can drink; and using mobile, plastic small troughs and 20mm pipe over ground.”

Calves are weighed every two weeks up to weaning and graded accordingly. After weaning 1 kg/head/day of cake is continued for three weeks. Those on, or above, target weight are then reared solely on grazed grass; those below have 1 kg/head/day until they catch up. Grazing is then on spring reseeds that have had no muck applied: “It’s all leaf, no stalk and good quality and, to start with, we keep them ad-lib with no residuals target,” he adds.

By mid-July there are two groups: the main group at target weight on 1–2 day breaks, ideally grazing some silage aftermath, and the stragglers group which still get some concentrates. By mid-summer, calves are encouraged to eat down to a residual. Paddock sizes are flexible and adjusted on a daily basis if necessary. “We make 4ha into a break, just winding the reel up and letting heifers through to the next break and putting it back out again. We start allocating grass in mid-July and back fence as well. The important thing is that all hectares get walked and measured weekly to grow as much as possible.”

The plan is to have just one group by early September and use R2 heifers to follow and graze down to the correct residual. Grass covers are built up through August and September for peak cover in early October, this is done using a separate autumn feed budget for the youngstock platform. All heifers are outwintered: on grass plus big bales in their first year and heavy covers of up to 4,000 kgDM/ha in their second. No concentrates are fed in year two.