Many farmers are facing forage difficulties this year, with low reserves and high dry matter silage leading to potential health and productivity problems.
But could compact feeding provide the answer? Ruth Wills reports...
Compact feeding has become extremely popular in Denmark, with around 50 per cent of farms adopting it – and it is a concept which is growing in acceptance across the UK.
Developed by Danish professor Niels Bastian Kristensen around five years ago, it involves soaking concentrates and mixing them before adding forage and mixing again, creating a moist feed with a porridge-like consistency.
Although it may seem odd to add water to forage that you have been trying to cut as dry as possible, it does have benefits, particularly in a dry year like 2018.
Nutritionist David Northcott, from Three Counties Feeds, recommends compact feeding as a solution to the poorer quality forage around this winter.
“Because of the weather this year a lot of dry forage has been made and many farmers will end up adding water anyway, so why not do it properly and see some financial gains?” he says.
Advantages include less sorting, less pushing up and higher forage intakes.
“The ration is all chopped to the same length and then water is added to make it sticky – like a porridge,” says Mr Northcott.
“Cows can sort very easily through a normal ration, but you could not sort out the individual oats in porridge and that is the same principle. Because of this there is no rumen pH spike in the day.
"Therefore, you get much better butterfat, protein and yield which is then reflected in the milk price.”
However, the system is not without drawbacks.
“One of the cons is that you have to have the mixer going for 30-35 minutes – which is a long time for a PTO to be running, so there is a fuel cost. But that is outweighed by the benefits,” says Mr Northcott.
At Tredinnick Farm near Liskeard, Cornwall, Michael Barrett and his brother Malcolm have been using compact feeding for the past eight months with good results. The cows are split into high and low yielders, and they have trialled the compact feeding on the high yielders.
“I read about compact feeding and quite liked the sound of it, but it goes against everything we have been taught before,” says Michael. “It was challenging to overcome the concept, as we have always been told that cows need structural fibre in the diet.”
Michael approached his nutritionist Andy Hawken at Three Counties Feeds, as he wanted to stop his cows sorting through the ration, so they gave it a try by soaking the concentrates alone.
Although they saw improvements in feed consumption, they soon found they needed to mix and soak the ration for longer, and added in forage to the same mix.
Mr Hawken later brought Professor Kristensen to the farm, which Michael describes as the turning point.
“If Niels had not come over we might not have stuck at it,” he says. “You have got to persevere and process it more – put a bit more water with it to make sure that mix is right.”
The results have been great, with the cows content and eating more forage.
“The biggest difference we have seen is that they are not standing there wasting time sorting, they are just eating or lying down,” Michael adds.
The brothers attribute soaking the concentrates overnight to making the biggest difference.
Michael fills the mixer wagon with concentrates at around 5pm and adds 950 litres of water while mixing, before leaving it overnight.
In the morning, he adds the forage and mixes again for 20 minutes before feeding it.
“We have been feeding at about 35 per cent dry matter,” he says.
The water volume can be adjusted depending on how dry the forage is. Due to the dry forage this year, Michael is considering increasing the water quantities.
There are other benefits to the improved feed use. Fertility has improved markedly since compact feeding. Overall pregnancy rates have gone up from 24 to 26 per cent and the heat detection rate has improved from around 65 to over 75 per cent.
“With the drought and heat this year, we have not noticed any drop in the heat detection rate. We have been very pleased,” he explains.
The calving interval and in-calf rate have also noticeably improved. In August 2017 the calving interval was 403 days, now it is 382 days. The 100-day in-calf rate has gone up from 58 to 65 per cent.
The farm has not escaped the effects of this year’s weather and forage has been a challenge.
“Even though forages have changed – we ran out of maize so had to change the diet – the cows have still performed,” says Michael.
“It might be partly to do with the water in the diet – it does help to keep them cool and increases their water intake.”
Milk yields have also improved noticeably, having been stuck at 40 litres a day before starting compact feeding.
“In December 2017 the high yielding group (30-90 day cows) were averaging 40 litres. In January and February they increased to 45 litres, and to 47 litres in April and 51 litres in May,” says Mr Hawken.
The improved fertility and milk yield have had a positive impact financially, too. Getting cows back in-calf earlier is estimated to save £3.09 per day (Blowey, 2005) so shortening the calving interval by 21 days produced an extra profit of £64.89. Over 295 cows that equates to £19,000.
Michael now soaks the concentrates for the low yielders and is trialling the same for calves, although he does not have the logistics to soak it for more than five to 10 minutes.
Mr Hawken is convinced by the benefits.
“If you’ve got dry forages – which quite a lot of people will have this year – it is a no-brainer,” he says.
“It might mean a little bit of time and effort but you get results time and again.”
182 hectare Duchy of Cornwall farm
All year-round calving
Milking 280 Holstein Friesian cows twice a day for Trewithen
Feed conversion efficiency of 1.82 across the high yielders since compact feeding began
Trials by Professor Kristensen found that feed efficiency increased by 3-5 per cent to 95 per cent NorFor Nel-efficiency a (measure of efficiency) with compact feeding.
In terms of Energy Corrected Milk (ECM) – which determines the efficiency of feed conversion to milk - they observed an increase of up to 4kg per cow per day in the first month.