Forage shortage create new problems for dairy farmers this winter

Drying cows off early, dropping to once-a-day milking and shifting stock off farm are the options milk producers should consider as they face a forage shortage this winter.

Planning to buy in feed is only part of the solution. It’s going to be a costly winter, says grazing consultant Tom Phillips.

“In most areas, it’s been a tough season. There wasn’t a lot of spring grass, so not a lot of silage was made. Some farms have less than one-third of their normal winter silage stocks and the dry summer was expensive for herds which bought in up to 95% of their diet.”

Even conventionally managed herds have been forced into feeding cows one or two months earlier than normal.

Grass growth has recovered in some regions, but there is little in front of cows and maize harvest promises to be under par, so many producers will be going into winter short of forage, he warns.

“They will need to buy in a range of protein, energy and fibre which will push costs through the roof. Even straw will be bought as feed.”

Instead, Mr Phillips advises producers to focus on cow condition and take measures now to protect it at all costs. Use it to gauge which cows to dry off at least a month early – particularly thin cows and first calvers.

“Condition at second calving is critical. Producers looking to outwinter stock should remember that cows can maintain weight, but rarely put it on.”

He also suggests spring-calving herds can cut out the second milking. It won’t save a huge amount of feed, but will allow cows to re-direct energy to bodyweight reserves.

A typical practice in drought-hit Australia or New Zealand is to sell cows, then buy in more to start a new milking season. While biosecurity concerns mean it wouldn’t be a popular option in the UK, Mr Phillips believes cull cows could be sold earlier.

“With prices as low as 15p/kg, producers may be tempted to dry cows off and fatten them.”But they will struggle to feed the rest of the herd. They can’t afford to hang on to culls.”

Similarly, some stock groups could be moved off farm. Neighbours who are giving up production will have silage and sheds available. It may be a better option for youngstock and less expensive than trying to shift cows off.

“The issue is to stop the effects as quickly as possible after it rains. When youngstock are affected by a feed shortage, the impact goes on for 2-3 years because they never quite catch up. They must continue to be well fed.”

  • Dry off thin cows and first calvers early
  • Winter youngstock off farm
  • Sell culls, don’t fatten them