Seeking expert advice and changing what has always been the ‘norm’ on-farm can be daunting for many farmers, but for Margo and Willie Webster, it has inspired the start of positive change. Chloe Palmer finds out more.
It has been a challenging summer so far for Margo and Willie Webster who farm at Drumdreel Farm in Fife.
Cold easterly winds throughout May and June bringing a series of wet, windy weather fronts made silaging almost impossible, meaning first cut was three weeks later than planned.
The family houses 238 Holstein Friesian cows all year round and, after a difficult year in 2018 due to the drought, achieving a good silage crop this year was of paramount importance.
Margo, who farms with her father, Robert Mitchell, decided to contact Alltech to seek advice about their silage-making.
She says: “Ian, the Retail Programmes Lead for Alltech, and I had an in-depth conversation over the phone at the beginning of May discussing the measures we could take and the likely issues which would affect quality.
“He followed this up with an email to set out what we discussed and also agreed seeking expert advice and changing what has always been the ‘norm’ on-farm can be daunting for many farmers, but for Margo and Willie Webster, it has inspired the start of positive change. Chloe Palmer finds out more.
‘Looking for a balance of bulk against quality’ to an on-farm visit to assess last year’s silage, so we could focus on actions we could take to improve this year’s crop.”
Margo’s father, Robert, had made tower silage until 2012 and the techniques necessary to make a high quality feedstuff in a silo differ markedly to the correct approach for clamp silage. She felt the family and the staff at Drumdreel would benefit from seeking expert advice.
During the half-day visit on the last day of May, Ian spent time examining the silage made in summer 2018 to identify issues which might affect quality.
Margo says: “After last year where the feed value of the crop was reasonably high but there was much lower volume than hoped for, this year we were looking for a balance of bulk against quality.”
“As part of our Alltech® NavigateTM visit, Ian carried out density testing on last year’s silage and this showed the density was twice as high in the middle of the pit than at the sides.
He provided invaluable advice as to how we should lift and compact the grass, urging us to create a concave pit this year by building up the side of the pit and then filling the middle.
“We were advised to fill the length of the pit in layers of approximately 15cm and consolidating these rather than filling in sections from the back as we had done before.”
"Our tractor men have been here longer than us, so it was important we brought them with us when changing our approach to silage-making"
As well as providing advice to Margo, Willie and Robert, Ian also spent time with the tractor drivers, explaining the nature of the problem to them and offering pointers as to how the silage could be improved.
“Our tractor men have been here longer than us, so it was important we brought them with us when changing our approach to silage-making.
Ian was very good at listening to their concerns and he could give them advice on how to fill the pit based on scientific and practical evidence,” says Margo.
“He showed the drivers the samples of silage and the density test results and demonstrated that where the silage was more consolidated, he quality was better.
The drivers saw the proof and so were willing to take his recommendations on board.”
Mitigating against the cold, wet weather to ensure the silage crop was the best it could be was key. They were advised to use an additive which would cope with low sugars due to cold weather and was keen they aimed to cut earlier in future years.
“In early June, we rang Ian again for advice on how much wet, soil-contaminated silage we should dump.
“The first cut was eventually completed on June 24 by baling what would not fit in the full-to-bursting silage clamps,” says Margo.
Diet The family grows about 100 hectares (250 acres) of spring barley, of which about half is fed wholecrop as part of the total mixed ration to the cows and the remainder is sold for malting if it makes the required nitrogen specification.
As well as reiterating the pointers about clamping the whole crop, Ian thought there may be issues with the way the whole crop was mixed in the ration.
Margo says: “We noticed inconsistencies in the dung and he suggested we contact KEENAN to discuss the way we were mixing the ration.
“During the phone call, the InTouch Feeding Specialist recommended we change the order the feed was placed in the wagon.
“KEENAN suggested putting the wholecrop in last, which would allow a better mix of the feed and help prevent the cows sorting the ration.
Some of our cows were picking to look for the blend and this meant they were not getting a consistent ration throughout the 24-hour period.
“Since we have changed this, we have noticed an improvement in the dung consistency. Even though we have ample trough space for the cows, we suspect certain cows were able to sort through and eat more of the concentrate.”
A number of areas were also examined where undetected issues might be affecting business performance.
Water trough space was highlighted as one area for improvement but Margo believes despite the figures indicating there may be a shortfall of space, she thought it is unlikely to be a limiting factor.
She says “Our troughs are spring-fed so we invested in a pump to ensure the troughs fill very quickly when several cows drink at once.
We never see queues at the troughs so we believe the cows all have adequate access to fresh water.”
Margo and Willie hope it is the start of a journey where they can revisit areas highlighted in the report to drive improved margins such as elements of cow health as possible areas for attention.
“Transition cows and youngstock are things we would like to look at in the future,” says Willie.
“Silage is the key issue for us at the moment so we have chosen to address this now but we hope to work with Alltech going forward to look at these elements in more depth.”
“We have bought into the approach and we have adopted Alltech’s recommendations from start to finish and we are confident we will reap the rewards.
Alltech provided the science and the evidence so we could convince the rest of our team to tackle the hidden waste we had accepted in the past.”
Looking ahead, the couple are confident of more site visits in the future and will soon focus on opening the pit and carrying out some more density testing and comparing the different areas.
“Having someone else thereto ask the questions meant we were focusing on areas which we perhaps already knew we should be doing something about. It was often simple things, but it prompted us to take action,” says Margo.
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