As you are probably aware, Free Range dairy requires producers to graze their cows for a minimum of 180 days a year. Whilst we are striving to give our cows as much freedom as possible, we have to accept that cows will need to be housed in the winter months on most farms, since the grass stops growing and conditions under foot can get very wet and muddy.
So, what should free range cows eat in the winter?
Since Free Range Dairy is all about a commitment to grazing grass for the benefit of cows, farmers and consumers, I strongly believe that grass, conserved as silage or hay, should form the basis of winter diets for free range herds. Not only because it is the natural food for cows, but because it also produces healthy milk.
A number of farmers feed maize silage or arable wholecrop silage to their cows in winter, which are a valuable source of starch (energy) for them. However, research shows that milk produced from cows fed on maize silage is higher in saturated fats than milk produced from grass silage. This is an important consideration for Free Range Dairy farmers, as we are not only concerned with giving our cows seasonal access to graze but, also, delivering healthy milk all year round.
How much grass should we feed in winter?
Most people acknowledge that a healthy balance needs to be maintained between forage and concentrates (cereals, proteins) fed to dairy cows and a ratio of 60:40 forage to concentrates (on a dry matter basis) should be maintained all year round. Many of us are striving to produce a considerably higher proportion of our milk from forage and use less expensive concentrates. My own experience suggests that feeding mixed forages can improve the total amount of milk produced from forage. So, perhaps maize and arable silages do have a place in the winter diet of free range herds?
On our farm, we shall be feeding straight grass / red clover silage this winter and aiming to ensure that this makes up 70% of the winter feed. I believe it is important that we give consumers a simple and clear message about what our cows eat and the exclusion of maize and other forages helps us to do that. But, I want to know what other farmers think is realistically achievable on their farms. I am discussing this question with the nucleus of farmers who have signed up to our Pasture Promise at regional meetings being held this month. In the meantime, I welcome input on this matter from other farmers and anyone who would like to source milk from free range herds.