The results of the 2019 silage competition will be announced at AgriScot after a bumper year for grass growth. Lynsey Clark meets one of last year’s winners...
Producing quality silage is a key factor in the success of Graham Kerr’s dairy business at Kirklands Farm, Carnwath, South Lanarkshire, and it is this attention to detail which ensured an overall win in the dairy clamp section at last year’s AgriScot silage competition.
It had come from a first cut on May 24, with an ME of 12.9MJ/kg and D-value of 80.9. And it was the quality of that cut which was the deciding factor in Mr Kerr moving to a multi-cut system, which he did this year, having purchased a forage wagon in February.
He says: “The first cut last year was a really light cut and very leafy, and the quality of it convinced us moving to a multi-cut system was the right thing to do.
“We invested in a forage wagon and recently took our fifth cut of the year. We aim for five weeks between cuts and apply just short of 45 units of nitrogen, plus a small amount of our own slurry, between each one.
“Being able to cut it all ourselves means the grass is never lying for more than 24-30 hours. Five hours after it has been cut we run a tedder through the fields, which we repeat if necessary, depending on the weather.
“A local farmer rakes up in front of the forage wagon, while one of us buck rakes on the pit to ensure we make a good job of consolidating grass and the layers are even. We have one main pit and a few secondary ones, but the main one lasts for nine months, so this year the first four cuts were put into the main pit and layered all the way back to ensure consistency.
“We have used an inoculant for the past two years, which seems to match well with our weather conditions. We certainly get rapid fermentation now, so it must be working.”
Mr Kerr says the silage quality has noticeably improved this year, which will allow them to produce more milk off their own forage, rather than relying on bought-in feeds. The boost in protein levels has been particularly impressive, now sitting at between 15.2-16.1 per cent, whereas previously they were struggling to reach 15 per cent.
He adds: “That will have a huge impact on feed costs, as protein is the main thing that drives the feed bill up.
“We currently feed 3.75kg of a 20 per cent protein meal, within a mixed ration, but we will now be changing to 1.2kg of a 35 per cent protein blend, which should save us 1ppl.”
Fed via a Keenan wagon twice a day, the ration (designed for 30 litres of milk) includes 0.5kg of straw, 4kg of treated barley, 6kg of supergrains, 10kg of first cut silage, 10kg of second cut silage, 8kg of third cut silage and 4kg of fourth cut silage.
Cows are then topped up in the parlour with 0.25kg of cake for every litre of milk above 30 litres. The milking portion of the herd is fed with home-grown grass, with haylage bought-in from a neighbouring farm for youngstock and dry cows.
This focus on silage quality is part of a larger cost-cutting review that Mr Kerr has undertaken at Kirklands, which he managed alongside his father Iain, until he sadly passed away earlier this year.
The team includes full-time staff Lewin Boyd (Mr Kerr’s brother-inlaw) and Kirsty Sanderson, plus part-time relief milker Brian Hogg.
Mr Kerr’s uncle, who farms nearby, also helps at silage time. Gradual improvements have been made over the years in several areas, such as cow fertility, the quality and production of milk and the general health and well-being of the cows, and Mr Kerr is now looking at retaining all those improvements while cutting back on costs where possible.
He says: “We have a relatively small farm, so we have had to make the land as productive as possible. In 2012, a particularly wet year, we made the decision to bring cows inside permanently and we have never looked back.
“They were miserable outside in wet conditions and it was causing problems for them and the land.
“Cows are far happier and we can manage their health and well-being much better. It has also saved the land from being poached, which has made it more productive.”
Other changes have included new cubicle housing, built last year, which has further improved the overall well-being of the cows.
Mr Kerr says cases of clinical mastitis are far fewer, which in turn has helped reduce antibiotic use.
All of these developments have contributed to the current average yield of 9,500kg, at 4.22 per cent butterfat and 3.31 per cent protein; up from a 5,500kg average when Mr Kerr first joined the family partnership in 2001.
He says: “Last summer, we struggled to get above 4 per cent butterfat, and I think this increase in quality is down to getting more forage into cows and that forage being better quality.”
The new housing will also allow the team to increase milking cow numbers to 200. Currently, they are milking 182 head on a Graham’s contract, and with it being a closed herd, they will gradually build up numbers by retaining heifers.
Calving takes place all-year-round, with 30 per cent of Holstein cows artificially inseminated with Holstein sexed semen and the rest with Aberdeen-Angus.
All beef calves and dairy bulls are reared on-farm and sold as stores at 16-20 months old through Lanark Mart.
Always willing to make improvements where necessary, the next step at Kirklands is to upgrade the milk storage and cooling tank to a higher capacity one. But Mr Kerr is not of the opinion that size is everything in the dairy industry.
He says: “I think quality and health of animals is paramount. If you look after them, they tend to keep you right.
“I have every confidence that there is a future for dairying, but it is not going to be easy. Increasing cow welfare and milk quality have been priorities for us, but we have also had to decrease feed costs to allow us to pay for new investments.
"Hopefully, cutting down on contractor costs and improving silage quality this year has got us some way towards that.”