The impact of switching to cut and carry

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Interest in cut and carry systems, often referred to as zero grazing, has increased considerably over recent years, with many farmers either using it during the shoulders of the season or throughout the grazing season.

Key drivers for adoption of this technology have been to increase the proportion of fresh grass included in the diet and as a management tool for fragmented grazing land, wetter summers, expanding herd sizes and, in some cases, robotic milking systems.

Learn more about cut and carry in our best practice guide

We spoke to David Merrett from Oldbury Farm, Gloucestershire, about why he decided to start cut and carry and the impacts this has had on his farm.

1. Why did you decide to start cut and carry and how long have you been doing it?

We stared to cut and carry four years ago when we had the last big downturn in milk prices. We have milked with robots for the past 9 years in a housed system. Prior to cut and carry we fed a silage based ration all year. The move to cut and carry was to try and improve feed efficiency, make better use of grass and lower costs. 

2. How was the transition - what new learnings or different ways of working did you discover?

The transition was a lot more straight forward than I had imagined simply because the cows love the fresh grass! We have probably learnt to manage grass much better. The regular cutting improves overall yield per Ha/year, and we can utilise our slurry better with more timely applications thus reducing fertiliser use.

We're hoping to transfer the principles of regular cutting of our grass to our silage making to improve its quality and improve feed efficiency through the winter period.

3. How have you/the cows/the farm benefited?

All the cows come to the feed fence when we put the grass out, which tells its own story! We can rotate the grass around the farm to parts which would be difficult or impossible to graze normally. We can get out on the ground quite early and be 'grazing' before our neighbours.

We have been able to lower purchased feed cost whilst cut and carrying. We don't have to make so much silage. We get very little wastage, as not the issue with rejection around cow pats. We can zero graze covers that would be too high to graze conventionally.

We have freed up ground to grow feed wheat for the cows, plus we have put some of the farm in to the Countryside Stewardship scheme. This has enabled us to secure capital grant funding to improve the farm infrastructure.

4. What (if any) negatives are there to zero grazing?

High initial outlay for the machine and the subsequent depreciation (compared to electric fence and posts)! If we get a breakdown that can't be fixed quickly the cows don't get grass for a couple of days (this has happened 2-3 times over the last 4 years). It is a daily commitment - the job that takes 30-40 mins to cut and feed out (although I quite enjoy the daily drive around the field)!

5. How do you manage if it is forecast or raining heavy? Or even at the minute in the very dry weather?

Most days we cut the grass in the morning at about 9am and put it out on top of the maize silage/blend buffer feed. If it's wet we do sometimes wait until later in the day as the standing grass does dry quickly. The machine has wide tyres which carry it well in wet conditions.

If it gets particularly dry and there's not much grass then we increase the buffer, reduce load sizes or stop zero grazing altogether; otherwise it can take a long time to fill the wagon up (and probably not cost effective).

6. Do you have a rough idea of the savings of zero grazing?

The main savings are reduced feed cost. We save up to 3 kg concentrates/cow/day when zero grazing. We aim to feed 10-12 kg DM of fresh grass/cow/day across the whole herd for 6-7 months of the year, which means we would save on not having to make about 500 tonnes of grass silage.

Prior to starting cut and carry we were considering investing in more silage clamp space. We do save on purchased fertiliser. This means we do have the contractor more often to spread the slurry, but we are able to utilise it across more of the farm and not just pump it on to maize ground.

Learn about the latest research and advice on grass, forage and soil management.