The winter period, and all of its associated feed costs, will have motivated many farmers to start reassessing their future feeding strategy. Faced with ever fluctuating feed and milk prices, more and more farmers are looking to improve business margins by increasing the amount of milk they produce from forage.
ForFarmers technical manager Philip Ambler says: “For any dairy enterprise looking to increase milk from forage, it is important they have a clear plan and a willingness to address issues across multiple areas of their system.
“Farmers must take a whole farm approach which will help maximise the quantity and quality of forage produced on their farm, covering everything from soil analysis to reseeding and silage management.
“But producing plenty of high-quality forage is only half the battle.
Overall cow diets need to be formulated in a way which best complements use of forage and improves how efficiently this forage is converted into milk.
“National figures suggest an average feed conversion efficiency [FCE] in dairy herds of only 1.2 litres of fat corrected milk per kg of feed.
“As such, there is real potential for most dairy farmers to drive this value up and thereby improve financial returns, as well as reduce a business’ carbon footprint.” The first steps on the milk from forage ‘journey’ are to work out a herd’s future feed requirements and assess how much of this requirement could be fulfilled via forage sources.
Philip says: “Farmers should work out how many tonnes of dry matter and metabolisable energy their cows need and then set a desired target for forage intakes.
“Once this target is in place, the quality and availability of forage producing land needs to be assessed via soil sampling and examination of historical productivity levels.
“The goal is to make the optimum level of land available for forage production and ensure it is capable of producing a high-quality crop.
“A specific nutrient input plan needs to be in place to rectify any deficiencies in soil health and a reinvigorated, regular approach to reseeding will help improve the overall quality and quantity of forage that land produces.”
With every extra mouthful of forage a cow eats having a real financial impact, forage harvesting and storage needs to focus on maximising yields and minimising losses.
“Farmers should work out how many tonnes of dry matter and metabolisable energy their cows need and then set a desired target for forage intakes."
Philip says: “Both protein levels and energy reduce as grass matures, so taking more frequent cuts, when the grass stem is younger, will improve overall feed quality.
“Taking a multi-cut approach also increases grass digestibility and freshweight yields, so it is definitely worth undertaking, despite higher contracting costs.
“Good clamp management is essential to help minimise any forage losses and ensure a good fermentation.
Using a silage additive will also improve silage palatability, as well as quality, helping drive higher intakes when fed to cows.” While producing high-quality forage is at the cornerstone of efforts to increase milk yields from forage, making sure forage is utilised in the most effective and efficient way possible is also important.
Philip says: “Providing cows with a consistent diet makes a huge difference to cow performance.
And this is where forages’ inherent variability can cause challenges in systems pushing to maximise milk from forage sources.
“Through the ForFarmers Feed2Milk approach, we aim to support improvements in FCE by delivering the nutritional and technical backup required to help deliver a consistent, balanced, forage-based ration on our customers’ farms throughout the season.
“To improve FCE, farmers also need to understand where all the bottlenecks are in their system which are stopping feed becoming milk.
This goes beyond forage production and should include a review of cow performance, overall diet and housing environment.
“Forage utilisation is likely to improve if investments are made in specific areas on-farm and time should be taken to understand the potential value of each of these investments and the different levels of return they would deliver over different time periods.” Philip is adamant there is real potential for dairy farmers to push for target values up to 1.6 FCE and that now is as good a time as any to start making changes.
He says: “There is no bad time to start thinking about how you are going to improve FCE on your farm.
Even during periods of low milk prices, if you can get the right plan in place and deliver results during the challenging times, the rewards you reap will be even greater when milk prices improve.”
Pembrokeshire dairy farmer John Philips has focused on producing high-quality forage in order to successfully utilise what can be grown on-farm.
John, who milks 200 predominantly Holstein Friesian cows in a family partnership at Great Molleston, Narberth, sees milk from forage as a key way to increase margins and maintain the sustainability of the farm.
“Cows as ruminants are designed to work efficiently with high-quality forage.
The farm here grows plenty of grass, ensuring we grow and utilise the best quality we can to drive the business forward,” says John, who has been working with James Wilyman of ForFarmers to help achieve this.
John says: “We have a regular grass reseeding policy which gives us access to the latest grass genetics and has a huge effect on both quality and quantity of the grass grown.
“We also soil test to ensure we have the nutrients to support quality growth and a fertiliser plan which will address any shortfalls.
“I believe forage variety helps drive intakes.
After a period growing maize we changed to barley wholecrop, but we found it very dry.
“Last year we moved to a 40% pea and 60% barley mix wholecrop and have found it is a wetter crop, with dry matters of about 25-30%.
It works very well in the cows’ diet, when combined with high-quality grass silage, and you can tell they enjoy it.”
John is a member of the Narberth and District Grassland Society.
The discussions and ideas he gets from talking to other farmers and visiting other farms has helped give him inspiration for improvements at home.
John says: “Talking to people with the same aims and seeing new ideas in practice really helps drive your understanding of a topic.
We have also changed our silage additive to Sil-All 4x4, which has a great fermentation and keeps improving silage quality and intakes.” Between June 2020 and February 2021, milk from forage has risen by just over 300 litres per cow at Great Molleston.
Yield per cow has already also risen in that same period by 200 litres.
John says: “We are on a Tesco cheese contract with First Milk, so constituents are important.
High-quality forage has supported our fat and protein levels as yield per cow has risen and over winter we maintained levels of 4.7% fat and 3.4% protein.
“We have also dropped the moist feed from the diet over winter as our forage quality improved and margins have increased as the benefits begin to show.” James says: “Providing cows with a high-quality palatable feed is important to John.
The attention to detail and his willingness to discuss and try new ideas is really paying off in his forage quality and ultimately the cows’ performance.”