How quality forage upped farm’s milk from forage and yields

Cheshire dairy farmer James Witter has increased milk from forage while increasing herd size and milk yields a cow.

The secret lies not in any fundamental change of system or breeding, but in maximising intakes of the best-quality forage possible, says Mr Witter who runs the 360 Holstein Friesians at Wheelock Hall Farm near Sandbach in partnership with father David and brother Edward.

“First, we’ve been on a programme of reseeding that has resulted in us renewing virtually all of the silage ground and grazing pastures over the past seven or eight years,” says Mr Witter.

James Witter standing with dairy cows

“This is the basis for quality grass silage production, and we also switched to a rotational paddock grazing system about eight years ago.”

In the past 18 months milk from forage has climbed from 2,800 litres to 3,700 litres, while simultaneously increasing overall milks yields by 1,000 litres a cow a year.

See also: Polytunnels help alleviate pressure on dairy grazing platform

“Increasing yield was our first priority, and this did initially mean that milk from forage declined, but we are now up to 9,000 litres a cow with 3,700 litres from forage.

“Our next target is to reach 4,000 litres from forage, which we believe is achievable with some further fine tuning to our grazing management.

“We really see grazed and ensiled grass as the basis of the ration.

“We are also producing fermented whole-crop silage and maize silage has a role mainly as a buffer feed in the summer months, but the key to increased milk from forage – for us – is quality grass.”

Key facts

  • Autumn and spring-calving blocks
  • 9,000 litres, and targeting 4,000 litres from forage
  • 12MJ/kg ME grass silage
  • More than 16kg DM a cow a day forage intakes
  • Regularly reseeding with best available new varieties
  • Rotational grazing with pre-mowing

The herd is split into autumn (60%) and spring (40%) calving blocks, which is significant as it helps this forage-based system work with a restricted grazing platform.

“We simply would not have the grazing acres to make a fully spring-block calving system work,” explains Mr Witter.

“We have about 180 acres [72ha] that is accessible for grazing and then a further 180–200 acres [72ha-80ha] as our dedicated silage ground.

“With whole crop and maize land we are farming about 450 acres [182ha] in total.”

Improving grass quality

Reseeding is now prioritised as required, mainly when there is any notable drop-off in grass yield or quality, but for the best part of the past decade there has been a systematic approach to improving silage and grazing fields with the best varieties available.

Silage face

Mr Witter has taken guidance from Helen Mathieu of Germinal, tapping into the grass-breeding progress made at Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University.

Dual-purpose mixtures of intermediate and late heading Aber high-sugar grass (HSG) perennial ryegrasses have been used primarily on the silage ground, while the grazing area is mainly down to late heading Aber HSG perennials.

Selecting varieties with high decimal reduction times (D-value) – the time required at a given temperature to kill 90% of the exposed micro-organisms – and highly ranked on the Recommended Lists is a key part of producing silage that drives intakes.

Forage box with weight cells

Quality silage

Having improved sward quality, attention to detail in silage making has been an important further step in maximising feed value and intakes.

The Witters have all their own machinery, including a self-propelled forage harvester, so they are able to cut when growth rate and the weather point to the best possible outcome.

“We aim for a first cut in early May and then take two further cuts at five or six week intervals,” explains Mr Witter.

“The plan is to cut when the grass is still leafy, to maximise the quality.

“We usually ted out the grass after the mower conditioner and wilt for up to 48 hours, and then chop it as short as possible, which is about 25 – 30mm.

“We are taking three cuts of clamp silage off a similar 180 – 200 acre area each time, so the priority is quality and not quantity at each cut.

“We don’t use an additive, as we believe that quality grass and sunshine are the best elements to give high-value silage.”

See also: How grazing cows can help reduce dairy costs

Rolled well and double-sheeted, grass silage at Wheelock Hall is typically analysing about 30–32% dry matter (DM) at 12MJ/kg metabolisable energy (ME) and 16% plus for crude protein.

As importantly, it is sufficiently palatable to contribute to forage intakes up at about 16kg DM a cow a day.

Dairy cows being buffer fed

“Maximising production from forage ultimately relies on intakes and we are making our silage with this as the first priority,” adds Mr Witter.

“We are feeding grass silage alongside fermented wholecrop, which provides the fibre needed in the diet.

“The main winter forage ration, for the autumn calvers, will be around 75-80% grass silage and 20-25% wholecrop, fed through a forage box with weigh cells.

“We’re feeding up to 1kg a cow a day of soya outside, plus Megalac, and then allocate concentrates to yield in the parlour, up to 10kg a cow a day.”

Grazing infrastructure

Rotational paddock grazing has been introduced within the past decade to allow the herd to make best use of the improved grassland available.

This has involved investment, with concrete sleeper tracks, paddock fencing and water troughs being the biggest elements.

The other key elements helping to make this split-herd system work are a concrete pad for buffer feeding and a segregation gate to divert cows as they leave the parlour.

Tracks for cattle

“It is the early lactation spring calvers that present the biggest challenge,” explains Mr Witter.

“We do not expect them to take everything they require from grazed grass, so we use the segregation gate to give them access to their buffer feed of grass and maize silage.

“Later lactation cows we find will take as much as 14 – 15kg DM/day from grazing.”

Such intakes are achieved through good management of the 4-5 acre (1.6-2ha) paddocks, with electric fencing being used to split fields when necessary to ensure a fresh bite every 12 hours.

“We are aiming for covers of 2,800kg/ha DM as cows come on to the paddocks – certainly not more than 3,000kg/ha DM.

“In the spring, we aim to graze down to 1,500-1,600kg/ha DM, but will be leaving more cover – as much as 1,700kg/ha DM – in the summer months.

“We are also using pre-mowing as a tactic to improve intakes and leave cleaner paddocks. We use a simple drum mower for this, and cut about 24 hours before grazing.

“If the cut grass is rained on before it is grazed it will have the opposite impact on intakes, so – like most things with grassland management – we are flexible about when we pre-mow.

“This is an area where we can do more, to improve intakes further and increase our milk from forage as a result,” he adds.

Grazing management is an area where there is a constant learning curve, according to Mr Witter and he is always looking at how to improve further.

“We have been grazing until as late as the first week of December, and then aim to have cows out again by the end of February, and earlier if conditions allow,” he adds.

“In our situation, given that we are juggling autumn and spring-calving groups across a restricted grazing platform, I believe we’ll be better placed in the spring if we shorten the autumn grazing.

“It’s just another thing we’ll try in order to keep pushing our milk from forage upwards.”