Growing a new hybrid brassica variety has transformed winter feeding and performance on one Staffordshire farm.
Like many dairy producers across the UK, Trevor Mycock found himself short of forage after last summer’s dry weather and had to find alternatives to see his stock through winter.
Farming at Townend and Peartree Farms, Hamstall Ridware, Staffordshire, he initially bought-in maize silage to tide him over, but preferred to feed his 600 milking cows and their followers with home-grown forage from the farm.
His first thought was to grow Westerwolds rye-grass and he drilled a small acreage, but was anxious not to put all his eggs into one basket.
In consultation with Agrovista agronomist Luke Hardy, Mr Mycock decided to try the relatively new forage brassica, Spitfire, sowing the seed in August, immediately after he had combined his wheat.
Mr Hardy says: “Spitfire is a modern hybrid rape cross kale which achieves a high dry matter yield per hectare. However, with a low dry matter stem and good leaf-to-stem ratio, it is particularly digestible to livestock.”
Using a Simba X-Press, Mr Mycock lightly cultivated the land and drilled 30ha (74 acres) at a seed-rate of 5kg/ha.
A fertiliser supplying nitrogen and sulphur was applied after drilling, and a set of rollers was run over the ground.
Mr Hardy says: “When the crop came up, we had to spray for flea beetle in early September, and we took out wheat volunteers with one spray of herbicide a little later.
“After that, we just shut the gate on the crop and left it until it was ready to be grazed.”
The Mycocks’ initial plan had been to graze the dairy cross Limousin youngstock on the forage rape, but the family decided not to put up the necessary fencing.
Instead, they opted to harvest the crop and feed it fresh to the milking herd in the total mixed ration (TMR) where it took the place of grass silage.
Mr Mycock says: “We brought the crop in with our self-propelled forage harvester and just tipped it into the silage yard. It was chopped to about 40-50mm and mixed it every day into the TMR at a rate of 15kg/head.
“We would fetch in a load of about 20 tonnes every three days and it kept well in the yard over this period. It showed no sign of heating and cows developed a taste for it. They started to crave it in their ration.”
Even more important than its palatability was the effect the crop had on cows’ yield, which increased by a massive 1,800 litres per day within three days of making the switch.
With 520 milking at the time, this equated to almost 3.5 litres/head and was an impressive improvement for a herd already giving 10,800 litres.
What made this performance even more remarkable was that it continued after the concentrates were cut back in the ration.
Mr Mycock says: “We fed a 28% protein blend as part of the ration, but we cut this in half after we saw the milk response, from 8kg to 4kg/head.”
But the herd’s performance continued at this higher level throughout the period the Spitfire was fed. This continued for about two months, starting in late February, and tiding cows over until turnout.
Nigel Storer from DLF, which supplied the Spitfire seed through Agrovista, says the brassica was com- plemented particularly well in the herd’s ration.
He says: “The Spitfire itself has a crude protein of 17-19% and is a particularly good source of rumen degradable protein. This is well-matched by fodder beet, rolled wheat and maize silage, which supply a range of rapidly fermentable carbohydrates.
“Meanwhile, wholecrop wheat and soya hulls are good sources of both structural and dietary fibre which complement lower levels of structural fibre in the Spitfire.
“Introducing the Spitfire to the ration was like adding the final piece to the jigsaw, resulting in a perfectly balanced rumen.”
Mr Mycock says he plans to grow more this year, upping the land across Townend and Peartree Farms to about 40ha (100 acres).
“It will definitely be a permanent fixture and we will put it in after maize as well as after wheat. We plan to broadcast the seed this year rather than drill and will follow again with the rollers.”
As well as performance benefits to the herd, he cites improvements to the soil structure. This is particularly important to the Mycocks who work in collaboration with South Staffs Water to implement practices which reduce nutrient leaching.
Mr Mycock says: “Using Spitfire over winter is so much better than seeing land lying idle and it stops surface run-off and soil erosion. If it gets too wet to travel over fields with machinery when we want to feed it out, we can revert to grazing with youngstock.
“We have not calculated the exact tonnage or financial benefits, but this is a very easy crop to grow and we are extremely happy with the economics.”