Turning suckler cows out to grass in the first week of March means one Cumbrian unit is able to make better use of grazed grass and reduce reliance on silage.
On Richard Corlett’s 166ha (400-acre) Skiddaw View Farm, Cockermouth only 41ha (100 acres) of grass is used for silage, while 12.5ha (30 acres) of triticale is made into whole-crop to feed his 250 sucklers and store stock.
Previously, about 41ha (100 acres) was made into grass silage to supply winter fodder for just 110 cows.
Greater use of straw as part of a complete ration has bulked up winter diets and taken pressure off silage needs and, although cows are turned out early, there’s still ample re-growth for first cut silage in June.
Making efficient use of grass by allowing cows to graze it when it’s available and substituting the high cost of making silage by feeding more straw and by-products in rations, is the most profitable way to run a suckler herd, says Keenan nutritionist Donald Brown.
“Suckler herds are looking closely at their future, but having great heaps of silage on the farm and watching it squirt out the back ends of cows while wasting valuable nutrients is a sure way to waste money.
“Making more use of grazed grass and ensuring silage fed stays inside cows long enough to do them some good must be a priority.
Although straw might cost up to £70/t it’s still excellent value for money.
It enables better use to be made of silage, means less silage is needed and frees up spring grass when it’s most wanted for grazing.”
Mr Corlett says using more straw in diets has indirectly improved foot problems:
“We have little lameness in cows because they aren’t paddling around in sloppy muck during winter.
We’ve had just two lame cows this winter out of 250 head – and we only scrape out once a day.
“The most efficient and cost effective way to use early season grass is to graze it.
On this farm there’s far less dependence on silage for winter feeding, but a tight hold is maintained on costs even though straw has to be bought in.
“When cows need the nutritional inputs from grazed grass in spring and early summer to boost milk yield and improve fertility it makes no sense to start spending money by having silage made as a priority.”
Getting store cattle to grow frame is an important part of the system.
Energy levels are kept at a moderate level, but protein levels are maintained.
There’s no point having store cattle too fat.
Finishers are becoming more aware of the need for frame to hang flesh on, says Mr Brown.
“The use of Belgian Blue bulls on Continental-bred cows at Skiddaw View Farm produces an animal which can perform on a 14% protein ration.
The 10kg of whole-crop being fed to growing stores at 29% starch and 14% protein suits these big-framed Continental types.
“When you’re working with smaller, native-type cattle you’ve got to watch the starch to avoid them becoming too well fleshed too soon.
Then the priority would be slower growth from a lower starch, but higher protein mix.”
Cows with calves at foot are fed 15kg whole-crop, 7.5kg brewers’ grains, 6kg grass silage and 3kg of a blend.
Store cattle are fed the same mix, but at two thirds the weight, while dry cows are on 1kg of straw and 30kg of silage.
Protein content of the mix is 14%.
As a result of these diet changes wintering costs have fallen, with suckler cows with calves at foot costing just 80p a head a day to feed; store cattle cost 60p a head (or 67p/kg of liveweight gain) and dry cows cost 50p a day.
And, although stock numbers have been doubled in recent years, the new feeding system has not required any additional labour.
It takes three hours a day to feed all cattle on the farm, with the entire job finished by 10am, adds Mr Corlett.