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Targeted feeding and exceptional grass management drives 92.5% milk from forage

For 2021 Gold Cup finalist Mark Hoskins, much of what he has achieved on his dairy farm boils down to two things: great quality grass and efficient use of concentrate feed.

At Down Dairy in Hindon, Wiltshire, Mark Hoskins milks 410 Jersey Friesian crosses twice daily on 364ha including a 138ha grazing platform, supplying Blackmore Vale Creamery on a solids contract. The spring block calving herd currently averages 5,200L and 480kg milk solids (MS), at 5.05% butterfats and 3.82% protein, with 92.5% of milk coming from forage.

“At the end of the day, our strategy is generally profit driven because any business has to make money in order to be viable,” Mark explains. “We run a New Zealand style system here because it’s easy to implement and brings a lot of efficiencies. As things have progressed however, we have adjusted our management, like producing more milk in the autumn or reducing our stocking rates, to better fit this specific business. But everything we do goes back to the cow – she has to be efficient.”

The Hoskins Family

The herd and breeding replacements strategy

In the closed herd, he aims to produce a low maintenance, well-rounded and fertile cow and keeps the Frisian and Jersey cross as balanced as he can. As a result, the herd average 5.5 lactations per cow, with an 82% 6-week in-calf rate, 363-day calving index and only 7 cases of mastitis per 100 cows. “Our general approach to breeding replacements is relatively simple: anything with a black foot gets Friesian and anything with a white foot gets Jersey!"

“This cross works well for us because of their ability to convert grass into high quality milk. We want the animals to go out, put their heads down and graze, and to also look out for themselves. What I don’t want is to be lifting feet or treating mastitis – we want milk in the tank." 

Making the most of the grazing platform

To ensure cows have access to the best forage possible Mark prioritises grassland management, with a focus on soil health. On the farm’s chalky and sandy soils, he still achieves up to 11.5% organic matter in some fields. He regularly measures soil and grass composition and growth, as well as a detailed leaf tissue analysis that breaks down the mineral content of his swards. “The more grass we grow, the more money me make,” he says. “But it all starts with the soil.

The herd is on the grazing platform for 305-315 days a year and, due to a lack of infrastructure, ground maintenance can be challenging, especially in wet weather. However, a good network of tracks, multiple gateways into each paddock and a wide variety of water points allows him to minimise soil compaction. The grazing rotations are also adjusted for each field depending on the weather, grass growth and the state of the ground.

Grazing platform

Reseeding and growing grass that suit the conditions

“We have done quite a lot of reseeding over the years, covering about 65% in the last three years, and have moved away from using a plough to stitching in seed,” Mark explains. “This helps with things like carbon sequestration and follows principles of regenerative agriculture, but our real motivation for making that move was keeping that grass in front of the cows. I didn’t want the grass out of the grazing rotation for up to eight weeks when a plough wasn’t necessary.”

“We tend to use a lot of fast-growing grasses, as with the direct drilling you need something that will get up and go, such as festuloliums and tetraploids. We also include ryegrasses to add thickness to our swards and white clover to help with nitrogen fixing.” 

To seed some of his paddocks, Mark uses ForFarmers TOPGRASS Extragen, a medium-term multi-cut silage mix that contains a combination of Lofa, a hybrid ryegrass, and a mix of Aber tetraploid hybrid ryegrass and diploid perennial ryegrass. ForFarmers account manager Dominic Paterson suggested that Mark use TOPGRASS Extragen to make the most out of his grassland. “Because it is deep-rooted, stress tolerant as it is specially designed for multi-cut systems, this mix is well suited to Mark’s free-draining, chalky soil and grassland management system.”  

Dominic Paterson and Mark Hoskins

Complementary concentrate

In addition to year-round grazing, the cows are buffer fed with grass silage and, on average, 0.13kg/L of a custom 14% starch mix produced by ForFarmers through the parlour. “We look at concentrate as a tool that we use to complement what our grass is providing and keep energy density where it needs to be, rather than as a core staple of the diet,” Mark explains. “Grazing grass is our most cost effective feed, but concentrate definitely has a place in our system.”

Dominic adds, “We have seen some farmers try to go without feeding a compound altogether, but they then need a lot more grazing land to make up for it as it’s not quite so efficient. Concentrates do serve a purpose, in even the most forage-focussed systems, in boosting efficiency and complementing the nutritional make-up of forage in the diet. This has been especially true in the last few years when weather conditions have inhibited grass growth.”

For more information

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