A focus on making high quality silage has contributed to an impressive increase in yield and milk from forage on a family farm in Northern Ireland.
The Byers family has farmed at Glenview Farm, County Fermanagh, since 1969 but Dale Byers, the third generation to farm there, has transformed it from an extensive suckler beef enterprise to a high yielding dairy farm.
In 2004, Mr Byers was prompted to come out of beef and switch to dairy when profits from beef continued to slide to the point where it was no longer a viable option for the 28-hectare farm.
Initially he was milking just 50 cows yielding 5,500 litres which were grazed over summer and then housed over winter.
In 2012, Mr Byers decided to move to an all-year-round housed system.
He says: “I wanted more milk out of my cows and there were quite a few dairy farmers around me who were switching to housing their cows all-yearround.
2012 was a particularly wet year and I felt this change would give me tighter control of feeding and would allow me to provide more consistency in the cows’ diet.
“At this point we were gradually increasing cow numbers to the 150-cow herd we now milk.
Milk yield increased when we brought the cows inside, but I realised we could make better quality silage,” he adds.
Mr Byers always reseeded a proportion of his grassland each year, but he was only making two cuts, with a relatively late first cut in early June and a second cut in August.
The next progression for the farm came in 2015 when he opted to try a multi-cut silage system.
“I knew there was scope to make better quality silage from my ground after we tried cutting earlier one year.
We saw the benefits of this crop which had higher protein levels with more leaf and was also more digestible.
“This made us realise a multi-cut system would work well so we tried it.
Now we are cutting four times a year starting in the first week in May and then cutting at five- to six-week intervals.
Paying close attention to detail to all aspects of the silage-making process has paid dividends, according to Mr Byers.
“The higher protein levels in the multi-cut silage means we need to buy-in less protein, so our feed costs have come down.
We have also seen milk yield increase and now the cows are giving 10,500 litres on average.” Mr Byers has taken control of all stages of the silage-making process so he can ensure every operation is carried out as well as it can be.
A series of investments are already paying dividends; these have included the purchase of a tedder last spring to aid wilting and prior to this, a forage wagon.
He undertakes all the mowing himself so he has control over the grass cutting height to ensure quality is maintained.
He has also worked closely with his nutritionist who recommended soil sampling to ensure nutrient applications are accurately matched to crop needs.
“We now soil test regularly and this has shown us we needed to apply lime to correct the pH of our soils.
It also indicated we do not need to use as much phosphate and potash as we were doing because of the amounts contained in the slurry we were applying, so our fertiliser bills have reduced,” Mr Byers says.
A flock of sheep graze the silage fields over winter as this promotes tillering of the grass and means there is fresh growth in early spring once the sheep are moved off.
Mr Byers began growing wholecrop around the same time as he switched to the multi-cut system, again on the advice of his nutritionist.
The local climatic conditions preclude growing wheat, so Mr Byers opted for a hybrid rye as the best crop to grow.
“Because we are cutting the grass when it is young and leafy for the multi-cut silage, it has a low fibre content so the wholecrop provides the scratch factor we are looking for to help with rumen function.
We then feed a small amount of concentrate added to the mixed ration.
“Hybrid rye performs well in our climate and it fits in well within our rotation, as it helps with reducing the weed burden in the grass ley which follows on.
We grow around 30 acres of wholecrop each year and it makes up 20% of the total mixed ration,” Mr Byers adds.
Careful consolidation of the wholecrop in the clamp is essential to encourage the correct fermentation, but Mr Byers pays equal attention to how the grass silage is placed in the clamp.
Historically, the clamp was filled in a wedge shape, but now Mr Byers places thin layers of either the grass or the wholecrop in the clamp.
This is particularly important now he uses the forage wagon as it tends to chop the grass longer and because wholecrop is more difficult to consolidate as it is more fibrous.
“I treat all the grass silage with Ecosyl because I have had really good results with it over the last three to four years.
I use Ecocool on the wholecrop because it is a dual acting additive which I find improves both the fermentation but also means the silage is less likely to heat up and spoil when we open the clamp.
“Finally, once all the silage is layered into the clamp, we use side sheets against the clamp wall and we place an oxygen barrier film on top of the silage to aid sealing.
We place a top cover over the film, ensuring it is heavily weighted down to minimise the risk of any air entering the clamp,” Mr Byers adds.
The results of the silage analysis are evidence all the measures Mr Byers is implementing are working.
This year’s first cut analysed at in excess of 11 MJ per kg/DM and 17% crude protein, which Mr Byers describes as ‘crazily high’, albeit he admits this figure was due in part to the unusually sunny, dry spring.
With the new multi-cut grass silage and wholecrop in the diet, and yield quickly responding to the improved forage ration, Mr Byers chose to move to three times a day milking.
This further increased milk yields and Mr Byers continues to look at every opportunity to make refinements to his grassland and clamp management to improve production further still.
The cows are thriving under this regime and this has enabled Mr Byers to reduce the age at first calving from 36 months to just 25 months.
His calving interval has also reduced from 410 days to 386 days.
“My herd size of 150 cows is the maximum number I can manage just with relief milkers but without employing someone else and so realistically I cannot expand numbers.
“I keep trying to do everything a little bit better and I find it is the attention to detail and the small changes which result in the improvements to performance and mean I can get more from less.
This way I feel I have full control and ultimately, for me, it is about investing in the next generation and my childrens’ future.”
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