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Grass, combining good forage with quality grass-based silage is the most cost-effective way to feed dairy cows.
While grazed systems for dairy cattle have the potential for the best returns, not all farms are suitable for this system.
And while the use of concentrates in feed offer high yields, dairy production using a concentrate system also incurs higher costs that can be difficult to claw back through higher yields.
However, according to Richard King, a partner at the Anderson Centre, a forage based production model with conserved grass allows costs to be reduced, while still retaining a relatively high output.
The combination of forage and silage in the system has benefits over a simple grazed production system because pure grazing has the restriction of the seasonality that might not fit with milk contracts and it is also dependent on the size of the farm and he soil type and climate for the optimum grazing conditions.
“Forage is a mid-way model where you can bring in the benefits of grass without having to move all the way to a grazing system, with its drawbacks,” Mr King said.
Mr King said that the dairy industry in the UK is under great pressure at the moment with the average price of ilk for producers falling from 33.86 pence per litre in January 2014 to just 23.97ppl at the start of this year.
He said that more price cuts are likely to come and recovery is not likely to be seen until 2017.
Even with cost savings, income drops for dairy farmers are not likely to be fully offset.
He said that it was therefore advisable to look at ways of maximising the systems of production and for many UK dairy farmers the best model was to use a forage and silage based system, ensuring the best grass and best methods of silage production were embraced.
“The forage-based model should not be confused with the grass-based system,” said Mr King.
“We recognise that the low input / low output extended grazing approach does not work for everyone, due to factors like soil type, farm layout or having the finance to convert.
“The forage-based model works for a year-round calving herd, with yields of around 8,250 litres/cow.
“The key to this system working is having sufficiently high quality silage to allow a reduction in concentrate feed costs and higher milk from forage. Under this type of system, forage costs will be higher than in the intensive system, but the savings in concentrate feed and also lower vet and med costs will more than compensate, converting a potential loss under current milk prices into a potential profit.”
Ben Wixey, the national agricultural sales manager with seed company Germinal said that farms producing milk from forage are making more of a profit than others.
He said that the move away from milk from forage had not been surprising because of the price of concentrate for some farms had been cheap.
However, between last year and March of this year there has been a move to milk being produced from forage systems.
He said that much depends on the quality of the grass and the quality of the silage provided as feed.
“First and foremost, it is vital that silage leys contain the best quality ryegrasses,” said Mr Wixey.
“But whatever the state of your swards going into this current season, there is still a lot that can be done to maximise the feed value of grass silage.
“Simply cutting at the optimum stage of growth can mean a difference of several D-value points, raising the ME of the silage and boosting the milk production potential.
“Aiming for quality not quantity will more than likely mean lower bought-in feed costs next winter.”
He said that as grass is only capable of sustaining three leaves, the die-back falls into the sward and damages the quality of the grass, reducing the D value of the dry matter and the energy content of the grass.
He added that it was also important to reseed in around six year cycles because of the gradual decline in quality of the grass over the years, with the subsequent drop in milk yields.
Phil Jones, research and development manager for Ecosyl, said that producing higher quality silage is a key step to driving up milk from forage.
This requires farmers to scrutinise every stage of their silage-making process, including the quality of the fermentation, to minimise feed value losses.
“Making good silage isn’t all down to the weather,” said Mr Jones.
“It is important that farmers really understand the biology of what is 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 far more to chance.
“Good bacteria convert the sugar in grass to lactic acid which produces 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.
“Many farmers may be missing out on the benefits of producing a good fermentation because they don’t fully understand what adding lactic acid bacteria with a proven silage additive does.
“In trials, adding a specially selected strain of lactic acid bacteria with a silage additive has not only produced a much quicker drop in pH in the important period of the first 24 hours after ensiling, but also improved digestibility and given an average extra 1.2 litres of milk per cow per day.”
Whilst these measures should help secure better quality grass silage this season, Mr Wixey said that improving the raw material would generate even better returns in future for a large majority of dairy farmers.
“Reseeding rates for UK grassland are far too low to maintain swards at their optimum performance levels,” he said.
“We estimate current reseeding rates are at around 2 to 3 per cent each year, which means many leys are being expected to perform well beyond the 8-10 years that we can expect sown species to remain, even under the very best management conditions.
“So in many cases, silage leys will contain large proportions of weed grasses, which yield less, are of lower quality, and do not respond as well to fertiliser as modern ryegrasses.
“Investing in more regular reseeding may seem like an added cost, which few will feel they can justify in the current climate, but the payback from grassland that is capable of delivering far higher yields of better quality, higher intake forage, will be achieved very quickly.
“Furthermore, when making the investment in reseeding, be sure you maximise the value by selecting the best available varieties from the independent Recommended List. Choose the best varieties for the purpose, and consider details like compatible heading dates within the mixture, as these small points can make a significant difference.”
A short and medium term focus on grass silage quality is something that is within the scope of the majority of UK dairy farmers.