One of the main aims of pasture-based systems of dairy production is to increase the proportion of grazed grass in the diet. This is most easily achieved by increasing the number of grazing days. However, periods of inclement weather conditions can reduce the number of days at pasture. The two objectives of this experiment were: (i) to investigate the effect of restricting pasture access time on animal production, grazing behaviour and dry matter intake (DMI) of spring calving dairy cows in early lactation; and (ii) to establish whether silage supplementation is required when cows return indoors after short grazing periods. In all, 52 Holstein–Friesian spring calving dairy cows were assigned to a four-treatment study from 25 February to 26 March 2008. The four treatments were: full-time access to pasture (22H; control); 4.5-h- pasture access after both milkings (2 × 4.5H); 3-h pasture access after both milkings (2 × 3H); 3-h pasture access after both milkings with silage supplementation by night (2 × 3SH). All treatments were offered 14.4 kg DM/cow per day herbage from swards, with a mean pre-grazing yield of 1739 kg DM/ha above 4 cm, – and were supplemented with 3 kg DM/cow per day of concentrate. The 2 × 3SH treatment was offered an additional 4 kg DM/cow of grass silage by night. Restricting pasture access time (2 × 3H, 2 × 3SH and 2 × 4.5H) had no effect on milk (28.3 kg/cow per day) and solids-corrected milk (27.2 kg/cow per day) yield when compared with the treatment grazing full time. Supplementing animals with grass silage did not increase milk production when compared with all other treatments. Milk protein concentration tended to be lower (P = 0.08; 32.2 g/kg) for the 2 × 3SH animals when compared with the 22H animals (33.7 g/kg). The grass DMI of the 2 × 3SH treatment was significantly lower (−2.3 kg DM/cow per day) than all other treatments (11.9 kg DM/cow per day), yet the total DMI of these animals was highest (16.6 kg DM/cow per day). The 22H cows grazed for 481 min/cow per day, which is significantly longer than all other treatments. The 2 × 3H animals grazed for 98% of the time, whereas the 2 × 3SH grazed for 79% of their time at pasture. Restricting pasture access time did not affect end body weight or body condition score. The results of this study indicate that restricting pasture access time of dairy cows in early lactation does not affect milk production performance. Furthermore, supplementing cows with grass silage does not increase milk production but reduces grazing efficiency.
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