Archive: Outwintering research update

Published 24 October 14

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Knowing the value of your feed, allocating correctly and monitoring heifer growth are all key to successful outwintering, whether it is on grass, kale or fodder beet, according to Professor Liam Sinclair and PhD student Norton Atkins from Harper Adams University, speaking at the DairyCo Research Day near Chester.

“For the first part of the four-year DairyCo project, looking at outwintering systems for replacement heifers, a survey was undertaken to look at current practices among farmers already involved in outwintering. It was a way, not only to get a picture of what was happening on British farms at the moment but also to get a feel for best practise in outwintering,” explains Professor Sinclair.

“Seventy per cent of farmers who responded were on a spring calving system and the other 30% were on a high output system. While saving on feed costs was the number one reason for outwintering heifers, there is really only a 10-20% saving on feed costs at best,” he added.

Liam Sinclair

Photo 1 Professor Liam Sinclair 

“Fifty-five per cent of responders outwintered on grass, and these were split between those who were providing a sacrifice field and those who wanted to graze or take silage from the field the following season.  Among the other farmers who responded, kale and fodder beet were the two most popular outwintering crops. Big bales were the most popular supplementary feed.

“Kale was the most popular outwintering crop, and has an average DM yield of 10 - 11 tonnes/ha. It’s high in sugars and needs to have a fibre added to the diet to manage them. Fodder beet tended to be fed to older heifers, and has a high yield of between 15 and 25t DM/ha. It’s a high-energy crop, and you need to manage the risk of acidosis and bloat by putting some functional fibre into the diet,” he said.

Managing and correct allocation are crucial with outwintering crops, explained Norton Atkins. A recent New Zealand study showed that, in two-thirds of herds feeding kale, cows were not consuming what farmers wanted them to.

“On two-thirds of the farms, cows were eating at least 1kg DM/day less than farmers thought they were and, in some cases, it was as much as 8kg DM/day, having a real impact on performance,” said Norton Atkins. “You do need to be more hands-on with measuring outwintering crops. Use a quadrant and weigh what you gather, to ensure you have a clear idea of what you’re allocating the cow.”

Research Day outwintering 1

Photo 2 Alistair Cliff, host of the DairyCo Research Day, outwinters all his heifers. 

 The DairyCo study used nine commercial herds, three outwintering on grass, three on kale and three on fodder beet, and measured cow performance on all three systems over the winter growth period.

“Performance on the three groups was pretty similar but it was clear that the farmer using electronic weighing scales to weigh all his heifers, monitoring and adjusting feed allocation accordingly, was repeatedly meeting live weight gain targets,” said Professor Liam Sinclair. “And this was in the harsh winter of 2012, demonstrating the value of measuring weight gain across the whole winter.”

The study is also looking at a group of high-genetic merit heifers, which have been split up randomly so a third is housed, a third outwintered on fodder beet and the last third is being outwintered on grass. The study will look at performance on the three diets, into the first 100 days of lactation, as well as at the economic impact of the three systems.

More information about the project can be found on the DairyCo website