8 March 2002

A blind eye to grass & with some success…

Some members of a Staffs

discussion group think their local college farm dairy

manager has blown a

cerebral gasket because of

his decision to become

more reliant on forages

other than grass.

Robert Davies reports

FEEDING five home-grown forages rather than concentrating on milk from grazed and conserved grass is proving a cost-effective decision and the opposite of what many dairy producers are trying to achieve.

But Ian Sanday says conditions at Rodbaston College, Penkridge, fully justify the switch. "Apart from an area of deep peat, most of the farms 150ha is light sandy loam, which does not retain water even if we apply plenty of farm yard manure," he explains.

"We can grow grass fairly cheaply in swards with clover when we inject slurry and apply a small amount of fertiliser to kick start spring growth around T-sum 200. But paddocks burn up in mid-summer and we simply cannot grow enough for the 175 cows we plan to be carrying within 18 months."

Maize was introduced six seasons ago and Mr Sanday has tried a range of alternative forages, with varying results. In a summer, with below average sunshine, a trial crop of soya was disappointing. When he tried to boost the protein content of maize silage by growing a mixture of corn and sunflowers, the result was a wet, unpalatable fodder with little extra protein.

But red clover and Italian ryegrass leys yielded well and produced silage of 15-19.5% crude protein. Whole-crop cereals – peas, oats and beans – have also performed satisfactorily.

"If I can grow a mixture of forage crops reliably and economically I see no reason in struggling to grow enough grass. I am quite relaxed about buffer feeding cows in mid-summer when necessary."

When fellow discussion group members insisted a system based on grazed and conserved grass would be more cost effective, Mr Sanday did the sums and proved otherwise (see table). Production costs included farm equipment and labour, but maize figures took into account contractors charges.

Figures also reflected the fact that Mr Sanday, who won a national award for the way he uses organic manures, kept fertiliser costs in check. Triticale to be whole-cropped received 18cu m/ha (1620 gals/acre) of cow slurry in April, 50t/ha (20t/acre) of cow manure was applied to maize land in March and 72cu m/ha (6480 gal/acre) of slurry was spread on Italian ryegrass/red clover leys though the growing season.

His calculation of cost/t of dry matter (DM) produced took no account of crop nutritive value and assumed 100% use. The most striking thing to emerge was the significant impact of Arable Aid payments at £222/ha, for which almost all the farm is eligible. Whole-crop triticale was actually free to grow and Mr Sanday gained £4.02/t DM.

Rodbastons calving pattern is changing: "We are establishing two herds, enabling us to expand by making the best use of available buildings. We also want to take advantage of any changes in seasonality payments," explains Mr Sanday.

The 90 September to November calving herd are high genetic merit Holsteins managed on a high input system. Mr Sanday aims to produce high yields, with about 2600 litres coming from a range of forages fed as part of a total mixed ration. This mix also contains rape meal, soya and a by-pass protein.

In February, forages fed to high yielders included whole-crop beans, peas and oats, maize silage, grass silage and whole crop triticale – which is grown because it does not require spraying with fungicides. This year, the triticale crop will be conserved as Alkalage. Cows also received 2kg/head/day of 55% DM haylage to provide extra fibre needed to counter a low milk fat problem.

The 65 February to April calvers are being crossed with New Zealand Jersey and Friesian bulls to create a herd of about 100 robust, keen foraging cows with plenty of hybrid vigour. These crossbreds will be expected to yield about 4500 litres/head, with about 4000 litres coming from forages.

Mr Sanday is also certain of the synergetic benefits of feeding a multiple forage diet. Since adding wholecrop triticale and peas and oats to the ration the average yield of the high input herd has increased by 800 litres to 6200 litres/cow.

"We have improved grass production and use by changing to paddock grazing and implementing grass budgets, but we still need to grow other forage crops. In future, I hope to try growing both lupins and lucerne." &#42

Production costs for forages

Yield (tonne DM/ha) Production costs (£/ha) Costs (£/t DM) Cost after subsidy (£/t DM)

Whole-crop triticale 10 181.91 18.91 4.02 in hand

Whole-crop peas and oats 7.8 187.51 24.04 1.84

Forage maize 9.6 217.72 22.68 15.60

Two-year Italian ryegrass/red clover 13.4 135 10.08 n/a

Production costs for forages

Yield Production Costs Cost

(t DM/ha) costs (£/t DM) after (£/ha) subsidy (£/t DM)

Whole-crop triticale 10 182 18.91 4.02 in hand

Whole-crop peas and oats 7.8 188 24.04 1.84

Forage maize 9.6 218 22.68 15.60

Two-year Italian ryegrass/red clover 13.4 135 10.08 n/a