After a difficult 2020, the turn of the year means a fresh start and time to look ahead to a more positive 2021.
Paul Macer, of Kite Consulting, urges farmers to start planning ahead for the season now, so they are prepared for every eventuality.
He says: “Every farm will see the benefit of better quality forage, whether it is grazed grass or silage.
When looking at conserved forage in a clamp, we urge farmers to think about the total energy value of it in terms of millions of megajoules [MJ] rather than just tonnes of silage.
“An extra MJ of energy per kilo of dry matter [DM] may not seem much, but in a 1,000-tonne clamp at 35% DM it equates to an extra 350,000 MJ, a substantial amount of feed value and enough energy for more than 60,000 litres of milk.
As ruminants, cows perform best on high quality forage, so achieving a target of at least 55-60% forage in the total diet should be the aim.
“Some dairy farmers are doing a fantastic job of producing excellent forage because they treat grass like an arable crop.
They focus as much on their grassland management as they do on their animal husbandry and it pays dividends,” Mr Macer adds.
He has been advocating multi-cut silage for many years because although the cash costs of making it are higher across the season, it is a way of achieving the full potential After a difficult 2020, the turn of the year means a fresh start and time to look ahead to a more positive 2021.
When costs are calculated per tonne of DM or megajoules per hectare produced, the cost benefit is significant.
“Typically, when a dairy farm switches to a multi-cut system, we will see an increase of 1MJ in the average energy value across the season and protein levels will rise by 1-2%.
“It is not just all-year-round calving, housed units which can benefit, but feeding high nutritional value forage from multi-cut to autumn block calving herds has a significant positive impact on peak yields and getting cows back in-calf.
“A multi-cut system uses similar principles to rotational grazing.
It is about defoliating the grass plant at regular intervals throughout the growing season at the optimum time to achieve the best quality forage to promote higher intakes.
“Taking a heavy silage cut at the end of May results in the base of the grass plant staying white for at least a week, meaning it is unable to absorb the sunlight when it is strongest.
Frequent cutting over summer means the base of the grass plant remains green so it can utilise the strength of the sunlight during the longest days,” Mr Macer says.
For those farmers considering a move to multi-cut for the first time, Mr Macer cautions it will require a ‘mindset change’ and it is not simply about ‘jumping in’ and cutting more frequently.
“Planning ahead is vital for those wanting to make the change. One of the biggest pitfalls is over-applying slurry too near to the first cutting date.
Slurry needs to be applied little and often in a multi-cut system and well ahead of mowing.
“Contractors need to be informed in good time and we would recommend discussing a revised pricing schedule for the silage operation.
We find contractors are usually receptive to the new approach when it is explained.
“Although there will usually be one or two extra cuts, the volume of the crop at each cut will be reduced.
This leads to higher machinery work rates and the smaller volume of higher dry matter crop puts less stress on the kit.
“Overall, the contractor’s bill will be higher, but the extra investment will be more than justified by the increased season yields and higher quality forage.
“There is also a benefit to the environment because by applying smaller quantities of slurry ahead of each cut, there is less risk of pollution and soil health improves.
Earthworms and other soil organisms are our best friends and they are essential for improving soil structure and recycling organic matter and earthworms cannot tolerate large applications of slurry,” Mr Macer says.
For those farmers who view 2021 as an opportunity to focus on the quality and quantity of their grazed grass, Mr Macer points to a carefully planned rotational grazing system as the key to improving productivity.
“Now there are various technological advancements which allow farmers to measure, monitor and manage their grazed grass.
Using one of the excellent grazing apps available allows producers to record grass availability and accurately estimate grass deficits and surpluses and take appropriate action.
“They also identify which fields and paddocks are growing less grass than expected.
The reasons for this can then be investigated, whether it a nutrient imbalance, a drainage problem or perhaps the sward is worn out and needs re-seeding,” Mr Macer adds.
Ultimately, growing the most grass from the least amount of land, with as few inputs as possible, not only improves the financial performance of a dairy business, but it also makes sense for the environment, according to Mr Macer.
“If we can increase the efficiency of every stage of the milk production cycle, research has shown there is the potential to produce the same amount of milk with 30% fewer cows.
This could free up less productive land for alternative uses, such as establishing environmental features.
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