Dairy feed advice to combat poor quality silage this season

High levels of rain in May resulted in some poor-quality first cuts. Debbie James looks at how to keep your dairy herd productive.

Dairy farms faced with feeding poor-quality first-cut silage this winter can avoid compromising cow performance by maximising intakes and promoting rumen function.

Early analyses point to many farms struggling to achieve 10MJ/kg dry matter (DM) from first cut.

Rain forced many to delay harvesting the crop, but while this compromised quality, quantity is not an issue. With large stocks to feed, farmers must find the most efficient way to use it.

See also: Silage quality poorer than the wet season of 2012

Ken March, ruminant nutritionist at Countrywide, says it is not a matter of replacing poor-quality silage with a more palatable alternative, but working out how best to feed it.

Winter feed checklist

  • Look at maximising rumen function to drive intakes
  • Clamp and trough management is key
  • Feed first-cut silage to lower yielders

Of the 60 clamp samples he has had analysed so far this summer, only two were higher than 11MJ/kg DM – most were under 10MJ.

Some farms will have home-grown cereals, wholecrop silage or maize to balance the ration, but if they are relying solely on wet, mature silage they must look at what supplements are available to achieve the yields they are targeting.

Mr March suggests introducing yeast to improve digestibility and encourage rumen function. Energy shortfalls can be addressed by including cereals to protect yield.

“We are blessed with very favourable cereal prices this year and I would feed either wheat or barley, which are quick-release carbohydrates, with ground maize, which is 14.0 MJ ME/kg DM as a slow-release starch,” he says.

Starchy feeds also promote growth of rumen bacteria to aid milk protein levels, but inclusion of cereals should be balanced to prevent acidosis.

Protein supply needs to match the degradability of carbohydrate sources; both maize distillers’ dark grains and hi-pro soya bean meal meet this criteria. Mr March says both are good protein sources and have excellent energy values.

Soya bean prices promise to be attractive this autumn thanks to a combination of a bumper South American crop, a US harvest projected to be even higher and favourable exchange rates. Distillers’ grain is another option. Mr March recommends complementing these with protected urea to improve rumen efficiency while saving space within the total DM intake to allow more silage to be fed.

Maximising intakes

When feeding silage, careful feed presentation will encourage intakes and avoid rejection.

Chris Savery of the Dairy Group says it is vital that clamps and feed troughs are well managed and balanced with sensible volumes of quality supplements this winter.

“Feed must be kept fresh, all feed that is not eaten that day should be removed,” he advises.

“The clamp face should be kept sharp and straight, being less affected by the weather. Use the silage meticulously so that it does not deteriorate aerobically.’’

If forage quality is poor, it may be possible to avoid feeding it to priority stock, Mr Savery says.

“If the first cut is wet and mature perhaps a different cut could be fed to high yielders, fresh calvers and pre-calvers,” he says.

Combining two cuts protects productivity

With a first-cut analysis of 9.6MJ/kg DM, Carmarthenshire dairy farmer Aled Saunders has taken action to protect productivity in his 170-cow Holstein herd.

Mr Saunders farms on land rising to 700ft at Maeslan, Alltwallis, near Carmarthen.

Grass set aside for first cut was not ready to cut in the first week of May and the poor weather that followed delayed the crop by another four weeks.

Although that crop only achieved 9.6MJ/kg DM, his second cut analysed at 11.16MJ/kg DM, so he is combining the two in the TMR at two-thirds first cut and one-third second cut.

The silage is conserved as big bales, so it allows good flexibility to combine the two crops.

The high-starch ration, fed for 35 litres, is combining 12kg DM of silage with 11kg of blend, made up of 26% ground maize, 22% distillers’ grains, 18% sugar beet, 16% wheat, 8.5% soya hulls, 5% soya and 4% molasses. It also incorporates 76g of protected urea that, together with the carbohydrate supply, increases the growth of beneficial rumen bacteria; this in turn increases forage intakes. Yeast is included in the TMR.

Any cows producing more than 35 litres/day are topped up with concentrates fed in the parlour.

Having a good energy density within the ration is vital to ensure good fertility and to help cows to get back in calf.