Why is forage such an important part of future-proofing a dairy business? Three farmers share their thoughts and what steps they will be taking to improve grassland performance.
In the last two to three years, Tim Sinnott has had a complete change in mindset when it comes to how he grows and produces grass silage and he is set on improving management even further over the coming years.
“Forage is something we’re focusing on,” he explains. “We’ve gone to three-timesa- day milking and put in sand cubicles and stopped the cows going out.
We’re now growing grass as part of the arable rotation and growing it as a crop. And last year we started a multi-cut system.”
The Sinnott family runs the 230-cow pedigree Holstein Chalgrove herd at Ivy House Farm, Nuneaton. In the past, silage ground was largely permanent pasture and silage quality was never as good as the Sinnotts would have liked – 25-27% dry matter, 10.5ME, 67-68 D value and protein in the low teens was typical.
When the system became more intensive, Mr Sinnott recognised silage quality needed to be brought into focus.
“The yield was going up on three-times-a-day, but milk from forage was going down,” he says. “We needed to improve our milk from forage and it was financially driven.
I wanted to reduce the protein we were buying-in and it made sense to improve grass quality.”
All grass has since been taken into the arable rotation and put down to three-year hybrid leys to keep the grass ‘new and young’. 2019 will be the first year the farm has no permanent pasture, with about 69 hectares (170 acres) due to be cut.
Having traditionally taken two and maybe three cuts of silage, starting in mid-May, last year, the team moved to cutting grass earlier, in the last week of April.
Silage is now cut monthly, with four to five cuts taken a year. The impact on silage quality has been marked, with first cut averaging 40% dry matter, 11.8ME, 73 D value and 14.3% crude protein.
As a result, cows are eating about 1.5kg more forage per head per day, while production has been maintained.
Mr Sinnott says: “We’ve put 1,000 litres on milk from forage over the last 12 months. That’s purely from the quality silage we’ve got – we’re doing no grazing.”
The herd is now yielding 12,750 litres at 3.8% fat and 4.2% protein, while milk from forage is at 2,857 litres. Next year, Mr Sinnott has 3,500 litres from forage in his sights, together with total yields of 13,000 litres.
The long-term aim is to hit 4,000 litres from forage, while maintaining fertility.
To achieve this, more grass is being reseeded in order to up the amount of grass silage fed in the diet. A silage compactor has been bought to help minimise wastage in the clamp and a new feeder wagon is on the cards.
To encourage intakes, the frequency in which the ration is pushed up for cows will be increased to about five to six times a day and epoxy resin may also be put down in the troughs. Mr Sinnott also remains firmly committed to using an additive.
“It’s the icing on the cake, especially as we’re making drier silage – we need to prevent secondary fermentation,” he explains.
He believes it is the small things that ultimately add up to make a big difference.
“The less we have to buyin, the better. It’s something we can control. There’s very little cost in doing it better. A small difference can make a big difference to the bottom line,” he adds.
“We need to do a good job whatever happens. We need to be efficient. There’s no excuse, regardless of who buys our milk or Brexit.”
Having an efficient grassland management strategy in place has always made sense to John Owen, Gelli Aur Campus at Coleg Sir Gar in Carmarthenshire.
Located in a prime grass growing area, in the heart of Wales, the 337-hectare (833-acre) farm – which is managed by Huw Davies – lends itself perfectly to a grass-centric system.
Mr Owen, who is project manager on the college farm, says: “For this part of the world, we’d have to buy-in a lot of feed from a distance. If we can keep costs down (by producing homegrown forage), it’s of benefit.”
The 500 cows at Gelli Aur are split equally in to spring and autumn block calving herds, with both averaging 5,500 litres a cow a year, with 3,400 litres produced from forage.
All cows are grazed as long as possible, making the most of extensive gravel and artificial grass cow tracks.
In summer cows just receive grazed grass and concentrates through the parlour and move on to selffeed block silage in winter.
As a result, producing quality grazed grass and silage is a priority. Mr Owen believes regular reseeding, weed control and cutting grass at the right time is key to success.
“We find we have to control docks on a regular basis. If we don’t, it effects dry matter yields. I hear a 10% drop in yield is average for a dock infestation,” he says.
“We absolutely view grass as a crop. We depend on it for grazing and silage and it has to be treated in that respect. One of the most important things when growing any crop is making sure the pH of the soils is right and we’re strict on that. We sample regularly and apply lime when needed.”
The team reseeds about 15% of silage ground a year using high sugar grasses.
Mr Owen was using short-term leys, but has recently switched to longer term leys as he felt he was not getting round the farm quick enough to reseed everything on time, which was affecting the quality of leys.
During silage-making, consolidation is high on the list of priorities, with side sheets, plastic wrap, a top sheet and cover net used to prevent wastage. A block cutter also keeps the face clean.
Moving forward, nutrient management on grassland is an area that the farm wants to improve on.
Mr Owen has just started a project using a slurry dewatering system that will help extract nutrients from the water proportion of slurry.
The aim is to use the nutrients on grassland and then put the clean water back into the watercourse. Mr Owen believes attention to grassland management is a must moving forward.
“Irrespective of Brexit, the basics of grassland management are important,” he says. “You improve your efficiencies by getting the basics right.
Brexit doesn’t change things. If you’ve got an efficient grassland management programme in place, it will save you money.”
Yorkshire producer Rob Lyth has always recognised the value in producing as much as possible from forage, but Brexit has pushed him to set a new target of 4,000 litres of milk from forage per cow.
He explains: “I think concentrates will go up more in price. I think milk price will drop again too. So that means we’ll have to feed less concentrate to make it pay. That’s where forage comes in.”
The 90-cow Holstein Friesian herd is already achieving good performance from forage, with 3,000 litres produced from forage out of total yields of 7,500 litres per cow per year. Fat rolls at 4% and protein 3.20%.
Cows are grazed for about six months of the year at Ewe Farm, Whitby, where Mr Lyth farms with wife Julie.
During summer, cows usually rely purely on grazed grass and cake through the parlour, although last year they were forced to buffer feed with silage because of the drought.
The winter diet consists of grass silage, wholecrop barley and brewers’ grains plus parlour cake. Mr Lyth believes cows are healthier on a forage diet, and aims to produce both quality grazed grass and silage off the 40-hectare (100-acre) farm.
Cows are strip grazed on nine-hour breaks, with three silage cuts taken a year.
A regular reseeding policy, using long-term perennial Rye-grass and white clover mixes, is viewed as crucial in achieving quality grass.
Mr Lyth says: “Reseeding is important so we’ve got younger grass, which means better quality silage.”
Keeping on top of moles to prevent soil from getting in the clamp is also part of the story, together with routine dock control, and the use of an additive, which Mr Lyth ‘swears by’.
“It saves us a lot of waste,” he says. “We’ve got no waste on the sides or top. That’s something you don’t want, especially when you’re short of silage.”
A recent investment in a diet feeder has proved vital in upping milk from forage figures. Mr Lyth believes it has paid for itself four-and-a-half times, thanks to improved ration consistency and less stomach upsets.
“That’s helped with milk from forage as it’s made a better quality feed with everything mixed together so every mouthful is the same,” he adds.
Providing enough feed space, so all cows can eat at once is also vital.
With 4,000 litres milk from forage in his sights, Mr Lyth is considering applying more fertiliser to grazing land moving forward. He is also keen to undertake regular slit aeration to alleviate compaction.
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