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Making most of silage key to fighting milk price volatility

With the chances of an immediate milk price recovery appearing slim, dairy farmers are looking for ways to ride out the storm.

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Experts from Andersons, Germinal and Ecosyl, speaking at a press briefing last week, said one of the best options to consider was ‘making the most of grass silage’.


Richard King, a partner in the Andersons Centre, said the current climate for dairy farmers was obviously ‘tough’.


“But it is worth remembering not that long ago many dairy businesses were making good money from milk and they will do again. Things will turn around,” he said.


However, he conceded it was difficult to know when this up-turn would happen and as a result dairy farmers should be looking at their management options.


Using Andersons’ ‘Friesian Farm’ model to compare systems, Mr King said focusing on quality silage would allow significant cost reductions while maintaining relatively high yields, due to greater milk production from forage.

Silage quality

Ben Wixey offers his tips for improving silage quality:
  • Must have perennial rye-grasses in the sward
  • Cut silage at the right stage of plant’s growth and at right time of the day
  • Use the Recommended List

Return

Figures from this theoretical farm suggested a forage-based system could lead to a 0.5ppl return for the 2015/16 year. This compared to 2.6ppl for a concentrate-based system and 0.2ppl for a grass-based system.


“Grazed grass systems have the potential for the best returns, but these systems are not going to suit everyone in terms of milk contracts, farm size and layout, soil type and climate,” he said.


He also said it was often difficult to ‘claw back’ the extra cost associated with a higher output herd when operating under a concentrate-based system.


“The forage-based system is a mid-way point; it brings in some benefits of grazed grass but without the need to change the fundamentals of the systems in terms of breed of cows and farm layout, but it also retains a relatively high-output system.”


Ben Wixey, of Germinal Seeds, said with silage-making just around the corner, dairy producers should think about a number of improvements they can make to this year’s crop, without the need for major investment.


“Simply cutting at the optimum stage of growth can mean the difference of several D-value points, raising the ME of the silage and boosting milk production potential,” said Mr Wixey.


“All a grass-seed plant wants to do is go to ear, so it is about cutting at the right time to get that balance between yield and quality.”


He said when deciding if a field was ready for cutting, it was useful to look at the heading dates published in the grass recommended lists and also get a rough gauge of how many seed heads are coming through.


“If you were to pick 100 tillers from a grass crop and about 10 per cent of these had a seed head coming out then it is at the right stage to cut,” he added.

Andersons’ Friesian Farm model

  • Tracks dairy profits
  • Theoretical farm based on real-world data
  • 100 hectares (247 acres) (40ha – 100 acres tenanted)
  • Non-aligned liquid contract
  • Yield (2015/16) of 8,190 litres per cow
  • Working proprietor plus one full-time staff member

General rule

“As a general rule try to cut silage in the afternoon as this is when the grass contains the most sugars.”


When leys were made up of a mixture of grass varieties with different heading dates, he said it was important to choose varieties with a tight range of heading dates, to improve silage quality overall.


He added it was important to make sure the right material was in the grass leys in the first place.


“Reseeding rates on British farms is 2-3 per cent, which means many grass leys are down for a ridiculously long time. That figure should be nearer 15 per cent for dairy farms, to ensure grass is rejuvenated every five to six years.


“When making the investment in reseeding be sure to maximise the value by selecting the best available varieties from the independent recommended list.”


Phil Jones, of Ecosyl, said: “The silage itself is never going to be better than what you put in.”


But, he also added it was important to understand the biology of what was happening in the clamp.


“In a good fermentation there is a rapid domination by good bacteria to lower the pH, whereas in poorer silage, good and bad bacteria naturally present on grass compete, so fermentation is left to chance.


“Good bacteria convert the sugar in grass to lactic acid which produce the fastest pH fall and with no loss of dry matter, whereas in other types of fermentation other less effective products are also produced as well as carbon dioxide, which is effectively lost dry matter.


“In trials, adding a specially-selected strain of lactic acid bacteria with a silage additive not only produced a much quicker drop in pH in the important period of the first 24 hours after ensiling, but also improved the digestibility and gave an extra 1.2 litres of milk per day per cow.”

How different systems would perform when applied to the Friesian Farm model?

Ppl Concentrate Forage Grass
Yield from forage (litres) 2,450 3,646 4,052
Milk sales 22.7 22.7 22.5
Total output 25 25.3 25.6
Variable costs 14 10.9 10.3
Overheads 9.5 10.3 9.5
Rent, finance and drawings 4.2 4.8 6.1
Total costs of production 27.6 25.8 25.8
Margin from production -2.6 -0.5 -0.2
BPS/SPS+ELS 1.3 1.5 1.9
Business surplus -1.3 1 1.7
Farm profit - £18,330 £12,375 £16,575
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