Plan now & stop shortages later
By Hannah Velten
FORAGE supplies on many dairy, beef and sheep units will be tight this winter due to poor yields and/or overstocking, but some careful planning now should prevent shortages, advise experts.
Calculating how much forage is available on farm to establish whether supplies will be short in winter is essential, says independent sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings. "Analyse the quality of clamped forage and bales and then work out your actual forage requirement. Any shortfall must be addressed now, not one month before stocks run out."
Trying to reduce the number of mouths to feed over the winter is an obvious way to preserve forage stocks, says Wales-based Promar consultant Iwan Price.
"Apart from the over thirty-month and welfare schemes to dispose of animals, young stock or dry cows could be away wintered, when movement restrictions allow. Beef animals could also be fattened sooner by increasing the concentrate in the diet to move them off farm before winter."
Growing extra forage or buying in roughages, such as potatoes or fodder beet, to pad out forage supplies is another option, says Mr Price. "It is the last chance for putting in stubble turnips, a third cut of grass silage may be possible or whole-crop can be taken rather than crimped wheat, as it is more bulky." Mr Price adds that stubble turnips should make up no more than 30% of a dairy cows diet.
Apart from straw, alternative forages for ruminants include pea haulm, maize, rape straw, whole-crop or the stalks left after herbage seed harvesting, says Ms Stubbings. When required, these must be sourced as soon as possible. "These forages must be properly balanced with concentrates or by-products, such as potatoes, carrots or biscuit meal to make up energy levels," she says.
However, it may be tempting to restrict forages to stock, particularly stores and youngstock, and feed increased amounts of fodder beet or sugar beet. But Ms Stubbings warns that these feeds are just like wet cereals and need to be balanced with long forage. "Otherwise, the rumen bug population does not function properly."
Extended grazing this winter could also be an option, says MDCs Pasture to Profit consultant Carol Gibson. But preparation must begin now.
By early October, average target grass cover over the whole farm should be 8-9cm (3-3.5in) high or 2300-2400kg DM/ha for autumn or all year round calving herds. For spring calving herd, targets are grass at 10cm (4in) high or 2500-2600kg DM/ha, says Ms Gibson.
When the whole herd is on pasture it should provide forage until mid/late November for mid lactation cows, she explains. But when a small proportion of cattle are left out to graze, such as older youngstock and dry cows, grass can sometimes last until about mid-February.
However, there is no point in building up grass supply unless there is adequate winter access for cattle. The success of extended grazing relies on cattle being block grazed on relatively small areas, using electric fencing, and being moved every day into clean, leafy pasture, she explains.
Whatever forage stocks are left for the winter, they need to be fed according to animal requirements. Signets senior farm business consultant David Evans urges beef producers to have winter rations professionally tailored to suit their system, based on growth rates and days to finishing. "Analysis of forage quality will ensure stock are fed no more than they require."
Dry cows, stores and youngstock can be fed on a straw and maize gluten-based diet rather than using precious silage, adds Mr Price. "Save the best forages for production animals."
But Ms Stubbings says sheep producers do not have to feed top quality forages to their breeding ewes throughout the winter, only in the eight weeks up to lambing. "Sheep will happily exist on a maintenance diet of 1kg of moderate quality hay/head/day or 1.5kg of untreated straw with about 0.3kg concentrates, depending on feed quality.
"Increasing amounts of concentrates should be fed from eight weeks before lambing and best quality hay or silage gradually introduced three or four weeks later," she adds. *
• Decide on winter requirements now.
Reserve quality forage for productive stock.
• Decide on winter requirements now.
• Source alternatives.
• Reserve quality forage for productive stock.