Focusing on forage is a good first step to improving margins over bought-in feed.
Given the cost of grazed or ensiled forage is generally less than concentrate feed on a dry matter basis, figures for milk from forage remain stubbornly stagnant. Only in the last year have costing schemes, such as Kingshay’s Dairy Manager, shown a reversal in a long-standing trend, but the swing is marginal and almost certainly a direct response to the depressed milk prices in the preceding year.
Germinal’s Ben Wixey believes there is a chance for most milk producers to take a lead from the top-performers, where a sustained approach to making more milk from forage is clearly a priority, and not just a knee-jerk reaction to a fall in milk price.
“Gearing the business towards a more forage-based approach is effectively lowering the cost base,” he says. “This will make businesses more resilient for the long-term.
“The temptation when milk prices move upwards again is to seek short-term gains by increasing concentrate feeding, but this is not a long-term solution. We are going to see milk price volatility for the foreseeable future so investment
in better times should be directed towards areas such as reseeding, grazing infrastructure and gaining expertise in alternative forage use.”
One dairy farmer who is setting such an example is James Cossins, Blandford Forum, Dorset. He has always been keen to maximise milk from forage across his two 155-cow herds, but in the last 12 months his team has made significant strides to improve figures further at the Down Barn unit. Their Kingshay costings show milk from forage figures have increased from 3,534 to 4,325 litres. This means forage accounts for 55 per cent of total yields, placing them well inside the top 10 per cent of Dairy Manager costed herds. Feed rate per litre has also dropped from 0.25 to 0.23kg/litre.
James Cossins has seen milk from forage increase from 3,534 to 4,325 litres per cow.
Mr Cossins says: “We are trying to make the dairies more profitable, or just profitable in this climate. We looked at our costings and the two areas to improve were milk from forage and kilos per litre of bought-in feed.”
Dry chalk land means both farms are conducive to a long grazing season. Both herds are managed on a simple system, with cows fed grass and maize silage through ring feeders in winter plus concentrate in the parlour.
Two-thirds of the cows calve in autumn and the rest in spring, turning out at the start of March and grazing on a paddock system. They may then graze Swift hybrid brassica and grass by day from October to November before being housed day and night.
Mr Cossins believes reseeding has been one of the main areas which has helped drive milk from forage. Running a mixed farm, he has the advantage of good arable knowledge and also the flexibility to rotate land to maximise productivity for both sides of the business.
Cow numbers have recently increased at Down Barn, so 14 hectares (35 acres) have been converted from arable to grass.
Mixtures are selected with an arable mentality to include the best varieties tested in Kingshay’s farm trials looking at yield, palatability and persistence. This includes late heading varieties with a selection of diploids and tetraploids with the highest D-value for grazing on the independent Grass and Clover Recommended List and a selection of white clovers. Aber High Sugar Grass varieties feature strongly in the mixtures.
Mr Cossins says: “Reseeding may seem expensive, but it does make leys more productive. The cows seem keener to go on reseeded areas and when they are in the fields, the milk goes up. I think they graze it more aggressively.”
A high proportion of permanent pasture and ground within a river catchment limits the amount of grass improvement which can be made. However, Mr Cossins is considering over-seeding some of this area subject to Environment Agency approval.
Silage quality is another key parameter and Mr Cossins uses his own equipment to control the process, cutting grass at the optimum stage for the highest feed value.
“We are aiming for 11.5-12 MJ/kg ME, with a D-value of more than 70, so it is important the grass is of the best possible quality and we do all we can to preserve this in the clamp,” he adds.
“We are including some red clover in silage leys to boost protein content. It is also useful for improving soil nutrient content, benefiting the following arable crops.”
With milk prices only about the cost of production, Mr Cossins is quick to stress dairy farming remains tough, but he believes his own situation has been far better in recent years due to a strong focus on forage.