Always eager to see best practice, Dr Dave Davies of Silage Solutions visited Dam Dale Farm, a grass-based dairy farm in the Peak District above Buxton, where the Fletcher brothers are using all baled silage.
Dam Dale Farm is run by brothers Gareth and Haydn Fletcher and their father Jonathan. It lies 304-335 metres (1,000- 1,100ft) above sea level and has an annual rainfall of more than 1,330mm (53 inches).
The Fletchers have 350-head of dairy cattle, including followers, with 180 cows milking. Cows are housed all-year-round and their average yield per cow is 11,700 litres on twice-a-day milking. And with the exception of 126 bales of wrapped hay, they use all baled silage.
Dr Dave Davies of Silage Solutions says attention to detail is key to the Fletchers’ success and they understand the importance of forage in nutrition, health and economics of their farming enterprise.
To these ends, they have a system which reduces losses and is traceable.
Attention to detail starts in the field with them making four cuts of silage from the same fields for milking groups, with fertiliser optimised to produce high protein grass silage.
Cutting interval is short to ensure high digestibility and therefore high metabolisable energy silage.
Youngstock and dry cow silage is made from different fields under a three-cut regime and with no potassium applied in the fertiliser to reduce issues of potassium overload during the dry cow period.
The longer interval between cuts gives a lower energy and protein concentration in silage, which Dr Davies says is just what the dry cow needs.
In 1997, the Fletchers wanted to expand the dairy herd, which involved converting silage clamps into housing for their stock. At this time, they decided to move to 100 per cent baled silage. Since then, they have invested great time and effort in ensuring best baled silage production to meet their needs. Most grass leys are on a five-year reseeding rotation with high sugar perennial rye-grasses.
Silage production is conducted entirely by the three members of the family plus one employee. Grass is mown in the afternoon, tedded and baled with a combination baler-wrapper 24 hours after mowing.
Between them, they can harvest 32 hectares (80 acres) a day, with bales being moved within five minutes of wrapping, with 14 bales per trailer.
Haydn admits if he had to milk, bales may be in the field for two hours, but said he often waits for bales to come off the wrapper.
Each cut is stacked in a separate area of the stackyard, with milking cow silage stored separately from dry cow and youngstock silage, and all silages are accessible at all times for winter feeding.
The Fletchers say using bales gives them the ability to monitor everything, including bales, acres, field and cut. This allows them to easily identify issues with growing grass efficiently in the field and rectifying accordingly.
In the field, the brothers are completely aware of the importance of maintaining quality, cutting in the afternoon to increase sugar levels, wilting rapidly and for no longer than 24 hours, producing dense and uniform bales, and finally wrapping and moving bales to the stacking site as quickly as possible.
Attention to detail is critical to their business, right down to the choice of bale wrap.
Gareth says: “The wrap is another crucial piece of the cycle. I want the wrap to be robust, so it does not tear during wrapping, then to protect the bale until we feed the silage, be it two months or 12 months later. We invest in quality wrap which has stood the test of time.”
Last year, for milking cows, they made 964 first cut, 786 second cut, 730 third cut and 686 fourth cut bales, giving a total of 3,166 bales, with an average of 43.6 bales/ha (17.6 bales/acre) over the four cuts. In addition, over three cuts, they made 671 bales of silage and 126 bales of wrapped hay for young and dry cows.
In terms of timing, milking cow silage was done as follows: the first cut was done on May 25, the second cut five weeks later on July 1. The third cut followed in the second week of August and the fourth cut was between the second and third weeks of September. The cutting interval for dry and youngstock silage is about three weeks longer than that for milkers.
At feed-out, the same attention to detail is maintained. All four cuts are mixed with other supplementary feeds through a mixer wagon to provide each day’s feed in the total mixed ration. This ensures the daily uniformity of feeding and allows accurate mixing of different cuts.
Asked why they insisted on using bales, since they take more time and cost more to produce, the brothers say: “We very rarely see waste on the bales.”
They explained their visible losses were as low as they could possibly be and estimate production costs to be about £30-£35/tonne of fresh matter. But because losses are low, the cost by the time it reaches the cow’s mouth is similar at £30-£35, unlike many clamped silage costs which increase significantly due to DM losses.
When asked about the challenges of having to move hundreds of bales at harvest time, they say: “We cart 14 bales on a trailer, with an average weight of 750kg/bale. This is more than 10t, about the same amount as an average precision chopped trailer load. When we get it back to the stack and it is put in place, we have none of this rolling for an hour to remove the air the clamp requires. The air from our bales has already been removed.”
Discussing whether or not bales are more labourintensive than clamps at feed-out, they say: “We are considering investing in a piece of kit to remove the bale wrap, but it does not take us long with a sharp knife. Once the wrap and net are off, we are practically there.
“When compared with clamp, we do not have to deal with the removal of tyres or pulling back the sheet as well as removing top and side waste, then taking it away to put on the muck heap. Our bales are fed within minutes of being opened, whereas a clamp is open to rain, wind and air deteriorating its nutritive value all the time.”