Farmers Weekly’s Business Clinic experts offer free advice on legal, finance, tax, insurance, farm management and land issues.
Duncan Winspear, farm management consultant at Savills Agriculture, highlights opportunities for cutting feed costs through better grassland management.
Q I am looking at ways of improving margins through reducing feed costs for my suckler cows and lowland ewe flock – what do you advise?
A It could be worth focusing on grazed grass rather than relying on purchased feed. The cost of grazed grass on a dry matter (DM) basis is broadly a third of that of silage and a sixth of bought-in concentrate.
On many set stocking systems, close to 40% of the grass grown is not properly utilised by stock.
Better grass use
With better grass use, margins should improve. The most obvious route is rotational or paddock grazing, favoured by some dairy producers, which can also successfully be applied to beef and sheep.
Such systems can result in more than 75% of grass grown being utilised, with good quality leys capable of producing more than 10t/ha DM, which can significantly cut feed bills.
Paddock or rotational grazing can have higher set-up costs than a traditional set stocking system (especially for fencing and water).
However, once a more intensive system is in place and concentrate costs are reduced, the saving in feed bills more than offsets the greater expenditure long-term.
Better grass utilisation can achieve a 30% reduction in concentrate feed costs for both breeding and finishing stock. On an average livestock unit this would be a saving of at least £5,000/year.
Consider carefully the grass mix used, as the relative palatability of different forage species can affect intakes.
Several studies have shown that including clover in pastures can increase the amount of forage eaten by cattle and sheep, with the added benefit of greater protein content compared with ryegrass-only swards, which can be especially beneficial for finishing livestock where the focus is daily liveweight gains.
We have seen lamb growth rates increase from around 150g/day to 210g/ day by introducing white clover into fields used by ewes and lambs and red clover sward for finishing stock.
At the same time nitrogen fertiliser costs were cut by 15%, a saving of around £2,000.
Grazing clovers and other legumes in the early part of the year requires higher soil temperatures (nitrogen fixation by many clovers is limited at under 8C) to begin growth, whereas ryegrass grows at lower temperatures than clovers.
Timothy can start growth at even lower temperatures than ryegrass, so including some timothy in sward mixes for fields used in the early part of the year can be beneficial.
When thinking about grass use, some of the non-traditional forage species have wider benefits. For example, chicory can reduce faecal egg counts in sheep.
Grass production can easily be measured with a plate meter. Actual grass growth is compared to the livestock demand for feed, allowing management decisions to be made in good time.
Several software packages are helpful in plotting forage growth and livestock demand.
Information generated by measuring swards can help with decisions on fertiliser rates where there is a grass shortfall, usually more cost-effective than having to purchase more concentrate feed.
When the measurements predict a surplus of forage, then more of the grazing area can be switched to a silage cut, so building up feed reserves.
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