Dairy farms turn to forage to manage spiralling costs

Dairy farms should maximise milk from forage to manage a 15% rise in the five-year average concentrate price, and parlour cake prices at more than £300/t.  

This was the sentiment of advisers at UK Dairy Day at Telford (15 September), as farms enter the winter housing period.

Global market volatility has produced across-the-board inflation for labour, feed, machinery, fuel and fertiliser costs.

David Keiley of Kite Consulting told Farmers Weekly that a conventional Holstein herd producing 1.6m litres/year may have seen costs rise to 32-33p/litre, with some regional variation in forage stocks. 

See also: 4 tips to manage the risk of dry silage

He said dairies in south-west Scotland, particularly further west, were forced to house cattle in midsummer due to drought conditions. 

“There will be late cuts of silage needed to bulk up winter feed stocks, but we know those are often lower in dry matter,” said Mr Keiley. 

Value products

But he said there was good availability of distillers’ products, meaning farms could buy in 50% dry matter feeds for £60-£110/t delivered, depending on haulage distance. Liquid products also looked good value at £100-£110/t for feeds with 37% dry matter, 13.5-14MJ metabolisable energy and 28-35% crude protein, he added. 

He said the growing popularity of non-soya diets was putting pressure on rapemeal prices, and suggested trying urea to counter this. He said a midwinter soya price of £245-£255/t was forecast to drop to £235-£245/t for May to October 2022.

“It will be challenging to manage profitability this winter,” said Mr Keiley. “Farms will have to be clever with feed and maximise contracts by focusing on bactoscans and milk solids to get the most out of every litre sold.”

Cut costs with care 

Independent nutritionist Steve Chapman of SC Nutrition said switching from parlour cake at about £280-£320/t to home mill-and-mix systems could bring a 30% saving, if done right.  

He added: “You must remember the minerals, which might cost £10-£15/t, although you could trough-feed them. And remember the cashflow issues of bulk-buying grain, storage requirements and the time and hassle of processing grain.”

Kingshay’s Kathryn Rowland said average prices of all dairy concentrates were 10% dearer in late summer compared with last year.

“If cutting out concentrate has a negative effect on yield, the costs of vet and medicine, machinery, and labour all go up,” explained Mrs Rowland. “You also don’t want to see a drop in fertility,” she warned.

Watch body condition

Some farms could be at risk of putting pressure on fresh cows if dry cow condition isn’t monitored, said John Cook, global technical consultant at World Wide Sires.

Dr Cook said some farms grazing dry cows had lost 0.25-0.5 of a condition score through a challenging August.

He suggested supplementing cows at grass or housing them, if possible. “The last thing you want to see is dry cows losing weight,” said Dr Cook.

“Half a condition score translates to about 30kg of liveweight on a typical Holstein cow, and that’s all we can afford them to lose from calving to 60 days in milk.”

How to lift milk from forage

  • Start off with good-quality, highly digestable silage in a well-fermented and consolidated clamp. Silage of 11.5-12MJ metabolisable energy (ME) should allow you to increase milk from forage
  • Don’t limit cows to 12kg of forage dry matter (DM) a head a day – they can eat 14-17kg DM. If your cows are eating 10-14kg DM, there could be scope to save money and drive milk from forage with better presentation and help from rumen-degradable protein products
  • Offer cows space to eat and drink – they need 70cm of water and feed trough space. Top-performing herds offer closer to 1m of feed space a cow
  • Calculate your cows’ DM intakes so you have a benchmark to work from. Start by doing a DM sample on the total mixed ration in an oven. Work out what the average cow eats in forage, concentrate and parlour cake. You can do weigh-backs and see what is not eaten at the feed face, or work off 5-6% wastage
  • Start small. If you feed 10kg of concentrate/day, take out 0.5kg, which across 100 cows will save 1.5t/month (£450/month)
  • Replace it with forage – even just taking out 0.25kg of cake at 13MJ ME only requires the cow to find 2.8MJ from forage, which might be less than 1% of her daily energy requirement if she is giving 45 litres a day

Source: Steve Chapman, SC Nutrition