30 August 2002

How forage cash crop switch pays

GRASS acres which once supported dairy cows on John Wallbanks farm in Lancs are now growing wheat as a forage cash crop – and demand is outstripping supply.

Milk producers turning to the high dry matter and energy of urea-treated processed whole-crop are paying him £504/ha (£210/acre) for the standing crop of Equinox winter wheat.

And Mr Wallbank, of Willcross Farm, Gisburn, says he could have sold this Alkalage crop 10 times over.

He runs the 58ha (140 acres) farm with his wife Susan – alongside an agricultural contracting business – and has been feeding wheat as a forage for nearly 12 years. He decided not to re-stock after losing his 85 dairy cows in the foot-and-mouth outbreak last year and has turned to growing wheat as a forage for other dairy farmers.

"I didnt drill anything until I had an order for it, but theres been a big demand. As well as advantages in cost/t of dry matter – about £54 from a 7t/acre crop – producers are keeping more stock, so have fewer acres for conservation and want to buy-in forage," says Mr Wallbank.

"Many think its a more expensive crop to grow than grass. They allow costs of drilling and spraying to cloud their judgement on economic grounds, when its the overall DM cost that really matters."

Although Willcross Farm stands at about 150m (500ft) above sea level and receives up to 1500mm (60in) of rainfall, its location has not proved a handicap to growing wheat. Harvesting of the September-drilled crop was due in late August, using a forager fitted with a processing mill which cracks grains to aid digestion.

Consultant Alan Sayle, who is based nearby in Gisburn, says this crop will be about 35% starch. And because it will be preserved with an ammonia-type Home N Dry preservative, it will be about 14% crude protein.

"The crop is not ensiled, it is preserved and is completely stable. It does not undergo any fermentation."

He believes more producers are recognising the value of using cereals as crops to include in dairy cow rations. The price paid by those buying from Mr Wallbank is based on the £504/ha (£210/acre) for standing wheat plus contractors charges covering harvesting, preservative and haulage. "We expect about 18t/ha – including grain, chaff and straw – producing DM at about £60/t.

He believes this forage concentrate could help cut feed costs, while still enabling high-genetic merit cows to express their potential. Mr Wallbank also found big improvements in cow health when he fed it to his own cows.

"The Americans and Canadians have the advantage of being able to grow and feed lucerne," says Mr Sayle. "Alkalage is more like lucerne than anything else we can grow for dairy cows. It can overcome the deficiencies of feeding fermented cereal crops." &#42

Jeremy Hunt

WHOLE-CROP

&#8226 Price on cost/t DM.

&#8226 Grown as a cash crop.

&#8226 Good feed produced.