Dairy Event 2009: Alternatives to straw

Following a wet and unpredictable harvest in the north, some farmers may be faced with the challenge of feeding poor quality straw to stock, but what are the alternatives available? Aly Balsom talks to a number of feed advisers at the Dairy Event and Livestock Show to find out.

In East Yorkshire, the quality of straw is better than last year, but availability is a problem, said Paul Robinson, Kingshay consultant.

But, lucerne can offer a good alternative to straw for high yielding herds. “Although lucerne may be costly, this cost is easily gained back in terms of increased rumen health in cows producing more than 9000 litres,” he said.

Lucerne is an excellent alternative forage, promoting high dry matter intake and acting as a high protein source agreed Trevor Rees, Dengie ruminant product manager.

“As a result of the wet harvest, Northern Irish farmers are experiencing a straw shortage and are turning to dehydrated lucerne as an alternative.”

Although the product may be more expensive than straw, they are getting a higher value feed, that in turn can reduce other protein sources in the diet.

“Our dehydrated lucerne, provides good scratch factor and rumen conditioning with a good blend of rumen degradable and bypass protein.”

When straw is poor, livestock farmers should consider including soya hulls or palm kernals in the ration to provide enough neutral detergent fibre (NDF), said Rachel Fowers, Ruminant Specialist,

Frank Wright, Trouw Nutrition.

“You can do just as good job in the rumen with these feed stuffs as you can with straw,” she said.

“The trouble with straw is, a lot of people do not chop it short enough to prevent sorting, so they are not actually getting the full benefit of the NDF. By using feedstuffs, you can mix the ration more evenly and actually get the NDF into the cow.”

Feeding the correct ration is about providing suitable mechanical fibre, not just about straw, stressed David Beever, Keenan nutritional director. “When straw availability is poor, coarse ryegrass hay should be the next option.”

“And in a ‘straw vulnerable zone’, allow silage to go a bit stemmy to provide a suitable fibre source.”

In the future, producers should consider allowing a proportion of grass to grow older, and use this silage as a straw replacer, agreed David Davies, speaking at the Silage Advisory Centre.

“By letting grass grow to 40% D value, you can provide good scratch factor in the ration with a higher nutritional value than straw.” Harvesting mature grass also provides a bigger window for cutting than straw.

But, when feeding dry cows, there is no better low energy, high fibre source than straw, said Prof Beever. “Whatever the price, I would spend my money on straw any day of the week for dry cows.”