Maximising homegrown forage on a mixed 2,400 acre farm in Dorset

Developing a forage-based dairy system that’s easy to manage and capable of delivering high levels of milk production is far from straightforward. But by focusing on grazing management, grass analysis and targeted supplementary feeding, this is exactly what Dorset based dairy farmer James Cossins has been able to achieve.

Dairy Nutrition
James Cossins 720

“The goal of our business is to maximise the use of homegrown forage,” explain James, who manages the Rawstar herd in Blandford, Dorset. “Our ground is relatively dry, which supports a long grazing season, and as a mixed farming enterprise, it is easy enough for us to include short to medium term grass leys within our arable rotations."

“We are very conscious of the variability of grass quality, and how this changes throughout the growing season. We therefore regularly test fresh grass while cows graze and dry NIR silage samples when cows are feeding indoors over winter. By tweaking supplementary feeding rates in response to the nutrient profile of the grass, we ensure that we support strong yields. By taking this balanced approach cows are able to produce an average of 8,800 litres at 4.29% butterfat and 3.30% protein – with 4,600 litres coming from forage.”

James manages a mixed farm on 2,400 acres, supporting two dairy herds, an extensive arable operation, and beef rearing enterprise. Some of this beef goes to the businesses Rawston Butchery and Farm Shop, which is just one of the Cossins’ diversification projects. All milk from the 160-cow strong Rawstar herd is supplied to Arla on a 360 Morrison’s contract, and the day-to-day running of the herd is overseen by herdsman, Steve Toop.

Grazing management and supplementary feeding

While cows are turned out as soon as possible, the early grazing season is carefully managed to ease the transition to grass and to avoid checks in cow health and performance.

“Cows start going outdoors in the middle of March and graze the paddocks close to the dairy during the day, before coming in at night,” continues James. “These paddocks are generally permanent pasture. For the first rotation we’ll strip graze the grass down quite tightly to ensure we remove any old, poorer performing grass."

“During this early period, cows will be buffer fed with grass and maize silage during the evening, but we gradually reduce buffer feeding rates as the grazing season progresses. By mid-April the cows will just be on a bit of extra baled silage or hay, and by May they will be out grazing full-time; utilising the shorter-term, high-performance grass leys after their first milking, and then the paddocks close to the farm after their second visit to the parlour.”

Fresh grass sampling is taken every two weeks to track protein and dry matter content of grazed grass, with this data then being used to help guide feeding rates in the parlour.

“We feed ForFarmers Optima compound through the parlour, which has a wide range of protein content options available - from 14-24%,” says James. “During the housed period we usually opt for a protein content between 21 and 24%, but by midsummer it will drop down to 16% in line with intakes that cows are achieving from grazed grass."

“During the grazing season you invariably lose a bit of control in terms of feed intakes and feed quality. That is why regular testing of grass samples and tweaking supplementary feeding through the parlour is so important to support good cow performance.”

A straightforward feeding system

Cows are brought indoors by mid-October and transition onto a simple mix of grass and maize silage, fed down the feed barrier.

“Cows receive around two thirds grass silage and one third maize, which is fed ad lib to encourage intakes,” continues James. “We are currently feeding Optima at 21% through the parlour, with nothing else down the feed barrier. The only extra provision is rock salt, which the cows seem to love!”

James aims to take three cuts of good quality silage each year. Dry NIR samples of this silage are taken every two weeks, with the data then fed into the ForFarmers VISOLAC and INSIGHT programmes. These two programmes help monitor the impact that changes in forage quality and overall ration composition will have on rumen health and herd performance.

“Our ForFarmers account manager, Dave Hunt, helps us manage the cows’ diet, grass sampling and these two reporting systems,” explains James. “Utilising the data we obtain from fresh grass and silage sampling, the VISOLAC programme produces a graphical report illustrating the performance we should be getting from the cows, based on what they are being fed."

Business diversification

“We run the local pub, the Langton Arms and my wife was struggling to source consistent, high-quality meat for the restaurant,” concludes James. “We therefore started to rear some of our beef animals to supply the pub, with finished animals travelling a short distance to a local abattoir. This proved to be a great success and inspired us to sell more produce direct to consumers, with our Rawston Butchery and Farm Shop established in 2012.

“My wife Barabara and I are also passionate about supporting local, Dorset made produce. As well as selling lots of locally grown food in our shop, in 2018, Barbara established the ‘Love Local, Trust Local’ food label with an accompanying awards scheme.”