Budgeting and planning the quality and quantity of the forages needed will not only help business profitability, but also safeguard against the effects of a poor forage growing season.
Experts agree all farmers should be thinking about how they can maximise the amount of energy produced per hectare in order to create a profitable future.
According to independent grassland consultant Dr George Fisher, thinking about the quality of forage produced on-farm will enable farmers to produce more milk from forage, which is ‘the profitable way’.
He says: “If you want to improve profitability, you need to think about energy per hectare, not just bulk per hectare.”
Most farmers should have a milk from forage figure of 3,000-4,000 litres in mind.
To achieve this, all the basics of good grassland management apply, including regular reseeding, targeted fertiliser application, weed control and good grazing or clamp management.
In Dr Fisher’s experience, a multi-cut system, helps to hit the highest levels of energy from total acreage.
For example, results from a group of 10 farmers in north west England showed moving from a three- to a five-cut system improved total season grass silage dry matter yields per acre from 9.8 tonnes dry matter/hectare (4t DM/ acre) to almost 16t DM/ha (6.5t DM/acre).
Energy content also improved from 10.8 to 11.7ME (metabolisable energy), which equated to enough extra available energy to support a 4,300- litre increase in milk potential per acre.
However, whatever the cutting system, he advises setting targets for the quality of silage you want to produce. He suggests aiming for a 15% crude protein grass silage to avoid having to buy-in extra protein and 11.5ME.
“To achieve that ME, you need to plan cutting date as early as possible, even if you’re on a two-cut system,” Dr Fisher says.
Dr Fisher believes there is room for many farmers to get better at budgeting and assessing grass yields.
Although grazing-focused systems tend to be good at monitoring dry matter yields on the grazing platform, farmers tend not to be so focused on tracking performance on silage ground.
He says: “Farmers may do a budget in terms of how much dry matter and fresh weight they need, but the challenge is they may not know what they’re getting off a field. They need to start to estimate what their fields are yielding.”
At the very least, counting and recording the number of bales or silage trailers coming off a field is a good way to establish supplies.
At the same time, it helps to identify underperforming swards so a plan can be put in place to address any issues.
“Ideally, sit down in January/ February, assess yields from fields last year, then based on your review, put together a plan for that field; whether that’s weed control, reseeding or sward lifting, etc. Then get it in to the diary,” Dr Fisher adds.
Mark Price, dairy specialist for Wynnstay, says budgeting exactly what forage needs to be produced on-farm and tracking supplies through the year, will put businesses in a much stronger position.
This farm has a 30.35t deficit and will need to either grow more crops, reduce stock numbers or buy-in feed.
You can work out your forage stocks using Kingshay’s Forage Stocks Calculator at kingshay.com
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.
This has never been more evident than in the last six months, when many farmers have been faced with a winter shortfall due to the summer drought.
He says: “People that got through it well realised they were short from the start and did something straight away.”
Farmers need to be working out the amount of forage they need in their stocks by July (see calculation box, left).
Presuming 60% of growth happens by Summer Solstice, if the farm is behind by the end of June, something can then be done about it.
Mr Price says: “Those that did that were in a better position. They could buy early and their cows are in better condition.”
When stocks are short, there are a number of options. Producing as much as possible is always the ‘Plan A’, but if this is not possible, then feed can be bought-in, or in the worst case scenario, demand can be reduced by dropping stock numbers.
To protect businesses in a poor performing forage year, Mr Price suggests considering the following five points – most of which are relevant whatever the season:
Can you put in an Italian rye-grass crop, oats or rye after maize? This can then provide an added bite in early spring.
Perhaps consider putting in wholecrop wheat and then grass, rather than maize. This could produce the same dry matter yield, but provide two crops in 12 months.
25% shrinkage in the clamp is common – aim to reduce it to 15% by getting the basics of clamp management right (sheeting, consolidation, using an additive, etc).
Feeding youngstock or dry cows every other day can lead to a lot of waste – can you reduce this by feeding more regularly?
Those that were on top of reseeding and agronomy were better able to cope with the drought as fields remained productive for longer.
Avoid holding on to stale, lame or mastitic stock as these poor performing cows will reduce your feed conversion efficiency.
Look at the cost of feed. How much does a cow need to produce to cover its feed costs, plus five litres? If it is not covering this, consider culling the cow.
Make sure rations are balanced well to maximise feed use efficiency. One grass silage is not a direct swap for another, so get them tested and rebalance the diet accordingly.
Rather than milk from forage, forage utilisation per hectare (FUH) could be a more accurate parameter to use to truly understand performance from forage, according to Wynnstay’s Mark Price.
He believes milk from forage can easily be skewed, which can impact on reliability. For example, if a farm increases its stocking rate on the same area and increases profitability by feeding heavier, their milk from forage per cow will fall significantly. Equally, if a lot of bought-in silage is fed, milk from forage will increase, but a more cost-effective decision may have been to buy extra concentrate and generate more milk sales.
Mr Price says: “Now more than ever, it’s important farms get the most out of their farmed land; both from an environmental and economic point of view. And we need to use a metric that captures this, without being skewed by marginal litres or business growth.”
He believes FUH to be this metric. This describes how much milk is being generated from each hectare of farmed area, which is not affected by any other changes on-farm and is relevant to all system types.
FUH = (Energy required to generate milk produced one year – energy produced through feeds)/farmed area allocated to dairy cows. Note: Any purchased forage is not considered as this is a purchased feed and does not reflect farm efficiency.
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