When it comes to switching cows to an all-year-round housing system it’s important not to get fixated about the quantity of forage that needs to be made and end up losing out on the quality.
That’s the advice of Cheshire dairy farmer Duncan Blood who says he learned from experience in the early days of year-round housing and now makes sure he’s feeding forage of the highest quality to enable him to “cut the corn bill” and ration cows as efficiently and as economically as he can.
“When you’ve got cows inside the aim is to have enough high-quality feed to provide them with a sustained, balanced diet and when you’ve got really high-quality forage going into them it’s not only doing the best job nutritionally, but it’s helping you make big savings on bought-in feed.
“And with prices going through the roof I’m literally doing everything I can to reduce the number of wagons that come through my gate delivering feed.
“Making poor-quality silage and having to supplement it with concentrate at these prices just isn’t sustainable. It’s a case of simple economics,” says Mr Blood, who milks 380 Holsteins at Hankins Heys Farm, Buerton, Audlem.
First-cut silage is taken around 12 to 15 May. Recent years have seen a vigorous approach to grassland improvement using seed mixtures based on high D-value varieties.
Helen Mathieu area sales manager at British Seed Houses says: “Getting the correct balance within the grass mixture to maximise D-value is vital. A typical mix would be up to 70% diploid and 30% tetraploid or 30% intermediate and about 70% late heading perennial ryegrass.
“There’s more than two tonnes difference in terms of dry matter a hectare between the top and bottom conservation yields of varieties and more than five units of grazing D Value difference in perennial ryegrasses on the NIAB recommended list.
“This has a significant financial impact. Five units of D value is worth more than one litre of milk a day,” she says.
Ian Grandfield of Shropshire-based Green Gem Agriculture is Hankins Heys Farm’s consultant agronomist and says current silage analyses are hitting high targets of at least 1-litre ME, 16% protein and more than 70% D-value.
“The earlier cutting dates achievable with modern grass mixtures provide an opportunity to maximize the production of the farm’s protein needs. It gives us top-quality silages to work with that reach 16-18% protein with D-values of more than 70. We’re cutting earlier so we know yields are going to be lower, but the pay-off is high-quality silage,” says Mr Grandfield.
The farm, extending to just over 97ha (240 acres) with a further 263ha (650 acres) rented, has strengthened its focus on high-quality forage and made it the cornerstone of successfully managing an all-year-round housed herd. But how much yield of grass has to be sacrificed as a consequence?
“We’re getting about eight tonnes an acre. We know we’re losing a couple of tonnes an acre by bring the cutting date forward by about 10-days, but our experience has shown us that feeding high-quality forage has a significant cost benefit to the herd’s overall rationing expenditure,” says Mr Blood.
He acknowledges that making the decision to keep cows inside all-year-round can initially be daunting in terms of making sure there’s enough forage available, but stresses that provided accurate calculations are undertaken – and in good time – there shouldn’t be a need to buy-in costly emergency supplies.
Hankins Heys Farm is currently using just under 3,000 tonnes of maize a year and is cutting 81ha (200 acres) of first-cut silage followed by another 81ha of second cut – producing a total of 3,000 tonnes of grass silage.
Feeding fresh cut grass
The herd is zero-grazed from April to September. About 10 tonnes of fresh grass is cut and carted to the cows once a day and fed with once daily feed of the TMR diet. The herd average is just over 9,000 litres a cow a year.
Mr Blood says: “We cut grass in late afternoon, aiming to get higher sugar levels and to reduce the acid load in the rumen by feeding fresh material instead of silage. It has made a massive reduction in the amount of grass silage we need and because we’ve got cows inside we’ve removed so many of the inconsistencies that cows have to cope with when at grazing,”
The year-round base-diet is a TMR mix formulated from a range of ingredients and includes 70% maize silage and 30% grass silage plus crimped maize and fodder beet.
“We bought the farm 10 years ago and didn’t originally intend to milk as many cows as this or under this type of system. We started to keep cows inside about seven years ago and found that, in terms of milk produced per acre of grass, it was far better than a traditional grazing system.
“While there will always be those who feel it’s cheaper and less complicated to graze cows in the traditional way, we’ve found we’ve got more control over the management of our high yielders by keeping them inside.”
And it isn’t just about achieving more milk.
“For us it’s fertility that’s been a real winner as well. With a yield drop with cows at grass you see it straight away and act on it. With poor fertility it creeps up on you and three months down the line you’ve suddenly got a big problem on your hands because the cows’ diet hasn’t been consistent and they’ve been short of energy,” says Mr Blood.
The herd is milked three-times a day with high-yielders spending up to nine months inside. In the summer the low-yielding group of about 150 cows is turned out to graze.
Mr Grandfield says any dairy farmer considering keeping his cows in all-year-round must first make a detailed assessment of the types of forages he can produce on the farm, how much of them and most importantly the quality targets he can achieve.
“There’s no hiding place when cows are totally reliant on you for their forage needs 365-days a year. Feeding a consistent and balanced ration to year-round-housed cows hinges on the quality of the forage components – be that maize or grass,” he says.
“Where little or no grassland improvement has been undertaken it’s unwise to embark upon housing cows 365-days of the year. It isn’t simply a case of making more silage, it’s a decision that requires a change of mindset and an awareness that while cows on a traditional grazing system are more selective grazers of poor quality swards, feeding that type of material as a year-round forage isn’t going to work because it will have poor digestibility and be low on protein.
“And with N at £330 a tonne, old grasses haven’t got the ability to use it efficiently and provide the yield you need,” says Mr Grandfield.