Milking Your Pastures

Chair: Robert Thornhill (Nuffield Scholar and Derbyshire dairy farmer)

Speakers: Robert Craig (Dairy Farmer of the Year 2014), Rob Richmond (Pasture Promise TV – see more on Rob here)


Robert Craig

Has been farming for 30 years (started just after the milk quotas were imposed).

Lost almost 75% of his dairy herd.

We import much of our high-value dairy goods overseas.

The UK has lost many of its traditional mixed dairy farms.

There is now a split within the industry.

Farmers have very little control over the process.

There is the question of niche market vs expanded business.

If the trend continues, there will be half the number of dairy farmers in the next 10 years. There is a volatile future ahead.

We are unsure of how the forthcoming EU quotas will affect price.

Started with Cairnhead Farm – originally 60 hectares in 1986 and 40 cows with 200,000 litres milk quota. New Zealand grazing groups came over to Ireland in the 1990’s and was influenced by them. Acquired Dolphenby Farm (270 hectares).

Both farms operate identically with 500g milk solids per cow (NZ cross – 25-30% Jersey + 75% Black and White New Zealand). Currently have 1000 cows. Calving takes place in a high-Spring block from February at earliest to April at latest.

We have taken control over the biggest cost which is feeding the cow.

We have moved away from silage. Currently monitor grass growth for density and height. This guides us as to when and where to graze and where to put fertilizer. Cows graze for 250-260 days on a rotational grazing system.

The effects of this system on regrowth – 30% more grass.

The aim is to breed a herd of cows that will efficiently convert grass dry matter into milk solids.

Infrastructure – access tracks, water and mains electric fencing.

There is very little data on how efficient this system is and more evidence is needed.

Like many dairy farmers, we have ignored our main asset; the soil. Our major weakness is an addiction to nitrogen fertilizer. It is hard to break away from this, especially when we have employees, mortgages, etc. We cannot ignore economics.

We have to ask ‘Who has the moral obligation to inform the uninformed?’

Although there is lots of great thinking at ORFC15, we have to hook this up to economics.


Rob Richmond

Have to ask what it is that we are trying to do with pasture.

We harvest sunshine to grow grass. But we are wasting plant growth.

When the first leaf emerges (week 1) it contains 15% dry matter, with two leaves (week 2) it contains 25% and with three leaves at (week 3) 60%. We need as much leaf area as possible. This area takes energy from the sun and stores it in a carbon hydrogen bond in glucose. This energy is passed up to the cow, so we need to encourage the plant to photosynthesis as much as possible.

We have to look at what the plant needs to grow.

A larger leaf area = more sunshine captured = more sugar = more food for the soil.

Excess sugars built up in the plant return to the soil.

When we apply fertilizers to the soil, the plant needs to utilize true energy to balance the high energy input from the fertilizer. This reduces the organic matter in the soil and nitrogen reserves are worn down thus perpetuating the cycle.

Putting this into practice, we need diverse swards, grazing management and the application of compost. To ensure the maximum quality diet, grazing takes place at or just before the point of flowering. Diverse swards produce a consistent amount of feed in comparison to rye grass which peaks and then troughs.

With short grass, it is like feeding a fire with kindling. The cows have to keep eating. In contrast taller grass is more digestible and the cow can eat and then break – like putting a large log on the fire. We want to keep as much leaf area as possible in the paddock.

The compost adds organic matter, microbes, nutrients and we currently have a target of 15 tons per hectare.

We also need a medium size, deep bodied cow that is robust. These ideally eat and then lie down and ruminate. It is quite difficult to find cows built like this.

Also feeds 1 ton of concentrates per year

RC – the current milk price is well below the level at which farmers can make a living. We have to re-evaluate the whole food system. It cannot be left to the markets.

We need either change from above through policy or we need change form educated consumers.

RR – there is a lack of innovation. We need to get more consumers to drink milk and there is a lot of scope to drive more high-value products.

Re stocking rates; RR has 1.9 cows per hectare with an aim to increase this. RC has 2 cows per hectare.

Re sowing leys: RR has some leys down for 7 years. It was noted that Alan Savory suggests that after 4-7 years production declines.

RC – we basically have a mono-culture. Rye grass is everywhere.


Dave Stanley (PFLA) asked both what percentage of nutrients is imported onto farm.

RR – importing straw and compost

Ed Martin from Kent, who represents small producers, asked if there was a difference in the end product.

RR – we need to look at the Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio. We need to keep this in check and pasture-fed cows produce milk that is higher in Omega-3’s.

See this article, published on 12/01/15.

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