Project code: D-97-15

The role of confinement, partial confinement and zero grazing systems within the Northern Ireland dairy sector, and the identification of strategies to optimise these systems

 

Background 

Although milk production systems within Northern Ireland are extremely diverse, traditionally all systems involved a summer grazing period.  However, in recent years there has been an increasing move towards systems in which grazing/fresh herbage is of less importance (partial confinement), or indeed plays no part (total confinement).  In addition, there is also growing interest in ‘zero grazing’ systems in which herbage is harvested daily throughout the summer period and fed to confined cows.  The reasons that farmers often give for these changes are many, and include:

  • The desire to increase milk yields per cow, and the associated difficulties in meeting the nutrient requirements of these high yielding cows within grazing systems.

  • The ability to adopt higher concentrate feed levels with housed cows than is possible with twice daily in-parlour feeding.  Higher concentrate feed levels help meet the nutrient requirements of higher yielding cows, and allow milk output per farm to be increased without the need to access additional land.

  • Expanding herd sizes mean that the grazing platform (ie the fields the cows can easily access from the milking parlour) is no longer adequate.  This problem is made worse by poor grazing infrastructure on many farms.

  • On farms with fragmented land blocks, walking cows to and from grazing areas has become increasingly difficult and dangerous due to increasing volumes of traffic.

  • Difficult weather conditions during recent summers has resulted in poor grass growth and quality, poor herbage utilisation rates, and badly damaged swards.

  • An increasing number of farmers are installing Automatic Milking Systems (robotic milking) and these are more suited to confinement systems.  

There appear to be many good reasons why local farmers are increasingly adopting these systems.  However, these systems are not without their challenges.  From a cost point of view, a lower reliance on grazed grass will result in higher feed costs, while machinery and fuel costs are also likely to be higher with confinement systems. However, it is unclear if these increased costs can be negated by increased cow performance, increased herbage production and utilisation and improved cow fertility and health.  Labour inputs are also likely to increase with these systems.  From a cow performance point of view, the response to additional concentrates offered may be poor, levels of performance may be lower than expected, while some farmers claim increased cow health and fertility problems.  In addition, there is a perception amongst consumers that cow welfare is poorer within confinement systems, while the environmental impact of these systems is often questioned.  The impact of these systems on forage utilisation efficiency (and their subsequent impact on land use/conacre requirements) has never been quantified.  These are all issues that will be examined within this project. 

This proposal recognises that part of the NI dairy sector has moved, or is contemplating a move towards these systems.  While some farmers will deal effectively with the challenges highlighted, others will not.  For the latter, sustainability and competitiveness will fall.  The project therefore seeks to increase efficiency in production systems and improve the sustainability and competitiveness of the local dairy sector.  Thus the project is fully aligned with the priority areas highlighted in 6a.

The need for this research has been established during discussions with government and industry stakeholders, including CAFRE and AgriSearch.

 

OBJECTIVES

Within the Northern Ireland dairy sector there has been an increasing move towards systems in which grazing/fresh herbage is of less importance (partial confinement), or indeed plays no part (total confinement).  In addition, there is also growing interest in ‘zero grazing’ systems in which herbage is harvested daily throughout the summer period and fed to confined cows.  The reasons for these changes are many, and include: 1) ability to meet the nutrient requirements of high yielding cows in a consistent manner, 2) maintenance of higher milk yields, 3) increased herd sizes meaning the herd can no longer access a sufficient grazing platform, 4) poor grazing infrastructure and fragmented land blocks, 5) difficult weather conditions during recent summers, resulting in poor grass growth, problems managing grass quality, poor herbage utilisation and sward damage, and 6) the increased adoption of Automatic Milking Systems (robotic milking) which are more suited to confinement systems.  

Nevertheless, it is highly likely that partial confinement, complete confinement and zero grazing systems will add considerable costs to milk production, including costs arising from higher concentrate inputs, increased mechanisation, and possibly increased labour requirements.  However, it is unclear if these increased costs can be negated by increased cow performance, increased herbage production and utilisation and improved cow fertility and health.  In addition, there is a perception amongst consumers that cow welfare is poorer within confinement systems, while the environmental impact of these systems is often questioned. In view of these many uncertainties, the primary objective of this research programme is to improve performance in the market place by examining how to optimise the use of partial/complete confinement systems, and zero grazing systems, within a NI context.

 

This primary objective will be achieved by:

 

  1.  Examining the role of forage quality, grazing duration, grazing intensity, and time of grazing on cow performance, with all studies involving a traditional grazing system for comparison. 

 

Other material related to this project: Zero-Grazing: A Best Practice Guide