Using infrastructure to reduce dependence on winter cropping. Marcel and Tania aim to make all supplements on the milking platform, support block and farm, and avoid nutrient loss when grazing winter crops.
- Wintering in an off-paddock facility needs to be simple. Fewer decisions means fewer mistakes.
- The key to a profitable farm system with an off-paddock facility is to keep cost of production down.
- By making a feed budget and plan the van Rooijens can be confident there is enough feed.
- Over capitalising with concrete or machinery will increase capital needed for repairs and maintenance costs.
Marcel and Tania van Rooijen have dairy farmed in Southland for 16 years. They started as 50:50 sharemilkers on the farm they eventually purchased.
Since buying the milking platform they have purchased neighbouring land and increased the property size.
In the past, the van Rooijens wintered 500 cows on a 136ha support block of predominantly swedes and kale, they foresaw that long-term this wintering intensity was unsustainable due to the negative impact on soil structure as the soils were wet and had a pan. Crop rotation was also a concern as they had already completed a cropping rotation on the whole block.
In 2009 the van Rooijens built a wintering off-paddock facility (freestall) on the milking platform. Their system has evolved to extending lactation by milking into June targeting a seven to nine week dry period. Feed for the off-paddock facility is provided from the support block and surplus feed made on the milking platform.
The van Rooijens have since sold the original support block and bought a larger support block 9km from the milking platform. The support block had crop wintering and the milking platform utilised an off-paddock facilityfor wintering.
The van Rooijens are currently (2016) building a HerdHome Shelter on their support block and aim to remove dependence on crop wintering as they find the soils are very wet. They are building a HerdHome Shelter as the effluent system is included within the structure.
The shift to an off-paddock system has at times been a steep learning curve. The van Rooijens have evolved their farm system over time.
The van Rooijens find there are “more complex levers” to pull with an off-paddock system, and feel changes need to be made in a carefully considered manner. For example, different feeds at different times and cow time in the off-paddock facility.
Adding value and flexibility
The van Rooijens are always looking at ways to add value and flexibility to their product.
- They keep some beef and bull calves and found this important to their cashflow, especially in low payout years.
- Cows are milked through June and cows culled early July. The van Rooijens are able to add weight to the animals prior to culling - compared with culling in autumn, and can take advantage of the higher beef schedule at this time.
During the milking season, some grain and PKE is fed in the dairy shed with the late lactating cows grazed on fodder beet in situ. If fodder beet paddocks are too wet, Marcel is prepared to lift the fodder beet using a bucket and feed out on pasture at lower stocking rate in order to protect the soils. Off-paddock facility effluent is placed on the paddock prior to cultivating fodder beet.
Managing an off-paddock wintering system
The aim is to use the off-paddock facility to protect soils and increase crop utilisation through cut and carry while, as Marcel says, “Keeping it simple”.
All surplus feed from the milking platform and support block goes into the off-paddock facility as pasture silage, whole crop silage and straw. Lucerne is fed to milkers in June.
The milking platform’s freestall off-paddock facility is used during the following seasons to reduce pasture damage:
- Early autumn: On the way to and from milking as a feed pad when feeding out silage and to stand off if wet for short periods.
- Mid to late autumn: If it is wet, used at night with supplement as a tool to lengthen the round.
- Winter: To extend lactation with milkers most of the time (occasional paddock grazing if dry enough) and dry cows 24/7
- Early spring: Dry cows 24/7
- Mid spring: As a stand-off for milkers if wet.
Marcel does not focus on controlling body condition score (BCS) loss in autumn as his experience shows cows in an off-paddock facility can gain 1.0 to 1.5 BCS during the winter. Straw is included in winter to ensure cows do not get too fat.
Benefits of wintering in off-paddock facility
- Full control of system compared to using a winter grazier
- Using the off-paddock infrastructure in autumn lengthens the round length (starting from April)
- Ability to take cows off paddocks when too wet
- Ability to put weight on cows over winter
- Cashflow from milking into June
Considerations when planning an off-paddock facility
- Have a guaranteed feed source
- From a support block or feed under contract
- Don’t overcapitalise when building and keep it simple
- “Don’t have too much flash stuff.” Use a tractor or broom to push up feed, manually clean beds and use this time to check cows’ health.
- “You probably only get half the cost back on the off-paddock facility when selling so the decision to build an off-paddock facility needs to be cashflow positive and a long-term investment.”
- Avoid over-mechanising where possible, manage the effluent as slurry rather than mechanically separating.
- A well thought through effluent system
- Off-paddock systems generate a significant amount of effluent necessitating a large storage area and knowing how effluent will be applied.
- Cow comfort
- Don’t stint on mat costs.
- Enough concrete to drive on
- Make sure it is functional, especially in high traffic areas when loading or feeding out silage
- Animal health risks
- The van Rooijens prefer to limit 500 cows to one facility in case they have animal health issues
Advice for managing an off-paddock facility system
- Staff skills
- Stockmanship is very important
- Need experienced and skilled staff
- Use preventative animal health like Teatseal and Short-acting Dry Cow
- Don’t let cows get too fat as this can increase the likelihood of metabolic issues – manage with straw
- Get dry matter feed right (aim for 30-35%). If too dry, the resulting effluent is difficult to manage and water needs to added to the diet
- Watch feed protein content (aim for 15-16%). Too much whole crop won’t provide enough protein.
- Keep it simple. Aim to keep feeding regime to 1 to 2 feeds
- Watch off-paddock facility surfaces don’t get too slippery when using the off-paddock facility as a standoff during wet periods
- Manage nutrients
- Ensure the effluent block is large enough
Monitoring systems implemented
- Removing cows quickly if not adapting to the off-paddock facility
- Be prepared that some cows - especially older cows, won’t adapt and get lame if too slow in removing them out of the off-paddock facility
- “In the first year or two, up to 20 percent of cows won’t adapt. A contingency plan is required for these cows” such as putting on pasture or crop over winter or culling from the herd.
- Removing cows before they calve and running scrappers less coming into calving
- Create mobs by calving date
- As Marcel says “Calves and scrappers don’t mix”
- Closely monitoring cows for metabolic issues when transitioning out of the off-paddock facility
Effluent and Soils
- Regularly testing soils to monitor fertility levels for P and K levels
- Targeting paddocks with poorer fertility for effluent application
- If potash levels lift, using paddock for fodder beet
Ensuring feed supply continuity
- Making a feed budget and plan so as to be confident there is enough feed
Evolving in the system
- Transitioning cows out of the off-paddock facility to minimise metabolic issues at calving.
- Taking cows out of the off-paddock facility once a week during the winter to walk 2km for fitness to ensure they develop the ability to handle outdoor conditions once calved.
- Fine-tuning crop rotations to provide off-paddock facility feed going forward. The current support block crop rotation is fodder beet then whole crop undersown with Italian rygrass (grazed in the winter) then whole crop undersown with permanent pasture.