Using more low cost cereals may be one way of trying to maintain that elusive margin on milk production, but the question is how do you feed more without running slap-bang into the acidosis buffers and depressed fertility?
The 140 pedigree Holsteins at Mearfield Farm consistently receive a diet of around 20% starch, with levels occasionally hitting 23%.
For most people such levels would be in the stratosphere and be a recipe for disaster, not least in the rumen.
But Cornish producer Peter Cox, who farms at Stoke Climsland, is a strong advocate of investing in the latest technology to help boost cow productivity to move his business forward. So his challenge was to find a way of moving that milk driver starch to new levels without causing severe acidosis problems.
The yields of 12,100 litres a cow a year while maintaining health and fertility on a high starch ration. Although feeding a ration of more than 20% starch can bring problems, he maintains that by adopting an ‘alkasystem’, the rumen is able to operate at optimum pH levels, resulting in increased dry matter intakes and more efficient use of homegrown feeds.
“Starch is crucial to produce such high yields as cows are very energy hungry, and the alkasystem gives us the confidence to push starch levels higher,” he says. Milkers are rationed for M+30 and receive 2kg of concentrate through milking robots up to 9kg.
The winter TMR typically includes 18- 20kg grass silage, 18-20kg maize silage, 0.5kg chopped straw, 2kg alkagrain and 2.5kg crimped maize along with soya, sugar beet, molasses and protected fat.
About 350-650g of alkaliser will be added, depending on the acid load of the ration. The diet alkaliser, AlkabupHa from Five-F Alka, works by rapidly releasing ammonia which raises the pH, increases buffering capacity, reduces the initial acid loading of the diet and encourages feed intakes.
This has been particularly helpful as first cut silage is made early to ensure quality and this can exacerbate acid loading, he says. The other aspect in controlling acid loading is Alkagrain. This is produced by adding Home n’ Dry pellets to rolled wheat.
This high protein urea and soya pellet is engineered at the mill to create a controlled release of ammonia to make a highly stable, high grain feed at an alkaline pH of 8-9, while also increasing the protein content of the feed. Since introducing the alkasystem, Mr Cox has witnessed a 3kg/day increase in dry matter intakes with the herd currently averaging about 27kg DMI/cow/day. He says this has also helped maximise milk from homegrown forage.
“We try and maximise milk from forage and achieve over 4000 litres from forage in the winter and were at 3600 litres last July. We regularly get 13-14kg DMI from forage,” says Mr Cox, who farms with his wife Sheila and parents Pat and Brian.
The farm started feeding AlkabupHa about four years ago around the same time they moved over to a robotic milking system. Cows are now milked through two Delaval milking robots, with low yielders able to access grazing during the summer months.
Since the system change, average yields have increased about three litres/cow as a result of the new feeding system, combined with the ‘robot effect’.
The move to robotic milking has also reduced the area over which cows are grazed, allowing a larger proportion of grass to be sown with cereals to shrink the purchased feeds volume.
The Cox’s now grow 40 acres of maize, 95-100 acres of first cut grass silage, and 12 acres of wheat with 180 tonnes of crimped maize purchased annually. Six acres of lucerne has also been planted this year. Every year, home-produced grain is rolled on farm and treated with 35kg/t of Home n’ Dry.
Typically 54% starch and 14- 20% moisture at harvest, treatment raises grain protein levels to 17-18%. Due to limited storage on-farm, this alkagrain will then be fed to cows during the 180-day winter period.
Graham Carter, regional manager for ACT, says the grain’s heightened protein levels help save on boughtin feed costs.
“Before introducing the alkasystem, we were typically feeding 3-3.5kg soya in the winter and now we feed a maximum of 2-2.5kg. That works out at around a £20/day saving for the whole alkasystem,” he says.
Graham says the benefits of the alkasystem have also been reflected in cow health.
“When cows are lying, they cud regularly, gut fill is always there and if they’re not lying, they are eating. If the diet is wrong you get lethargic cows and that’s not what you want on a robotic system as that needs to be continuously working,” he says.
Mr Cox adds that because rumen health is so good, cows are healthier and have good immune function which is reflected in the health and fertility parameters.
“Fertility wise, cows are very good. We have a calving interval of 386 days and 63% conception to first service,” he explains.
FiveF claims the biggest benefit from alkalising the diet on such a high yielding system will be seen in freshcalved, highest yielding cows – those needing to consistently achieve high feed and energy intakes.
The company says feeding alkagrain can enable farmers to make better use of cheap cereals by increasing cereal inclusion by about 2-3kg/head. That works out about 8- 12p/cow/day less than feeding a purchased blend of equivalent energy.