Climate change means UK farmers are experiencing more extreme weather conditions which can make growing crops far harder.
What lessons can be learned from other countries to help improve feed security? Rhian Price reports from the US and Australia.
UK farmers are experiencing some of the most volatile weather in history. Four out of five farmers are experiencing extreme weather, ranging from drought to flooding.
· Two-thirds of 176 farmers questioned as part of an exclusive Farmers Weekly survey say they are being forced to use supplementary feed due to extreme weather conditions.
Flood-hit autumns and springs have delayed and even prevented crops being planted, with respondents saying 2018 was the worst year so far.
Extremely hot summers have seen pastures burn off and grass growth halt. It has also affected the yields of vital crops of maize and grass which mean feed supplies have been in perilously short supply on many farms.
But farmers in other countries are facing even worse scenarios. Below, we speak to farmers in Australia and the US to find out how they are dealing with weather extremes and speak to an independent consultant to find out what UK farmers can do to improve feed security.
See also: Ahdb feed budget planner
Perspective from Australia
Dairying in Australia, where drought can hit at any time, means having a bank of forage is paramount for dairy manager Dan Brown.
He aims to have enough feed banked for 12 months at Coomboona Farms, two hours north-west of Melbourne, Victoria, where they milk 2,600 cows.
Forage crops such as maize, Lucerne, vetch and winter cereals are grown across the farm’s 5,000 acres with everything cropped for silage.
This means they only have to rely on buying in straw and protein – mainly cotton seed and canola meal to supplement milking rations.
“We do a whole lot of budgets based on how many tonnes of each crop we would like to feed in a year and how much land is required to grow that feed. We budget for 12 months up our sleeve,” says Mr Brown.
See also: Guide to preparing a feed budget
- Milking 2,600 cows, mainly Holsteins with 400 Jerseys
- Averaging 43 litres of milk produced daily at 4% butterfat and 3.35% protein
- Farming 5,000 acres
- One of three farms owned by Australian Fresh Milk Holdings
Even then they try to reduce the risk of price volatility by having their own commodity buyer who works for the Australian Fresh Milk Holding group’s three farms buying feed supplies. Sometimes this is purchased 12 months in advance, or a little less if the price is favourable.
Water and irrigation
Although the farm has a plentiful supply of land to support forage production, scarcity of water makes it an expensive commodity.
When the farm was originally purchased in January, a one-off payment was made to secure a permanent licence to allow water to be pumped out of the Goulburn River. But in years of low rainfall abstraction allocation is limited by the government.
“Irrigation is very expensive and access is more restricted because it’s been so dry. Last year we only had 70% allocation,” says Mr Brown.
To bridge the deficit they have to buy on the temporary market which costs about $600/megalitre (£318/megalitre).
“We have enough water security that even in a really bad year we can grow half of our crop,” he says.
With a bank of 12 months’ feed, that means they can get through the year and have some left over. It also ensures that any cropping failures can be covered by the previous season’s harvest.
“We would be in trouble if we had two years of drought, but luckily that has not happened since 1990.”
While farmers in the UK usually have a short window to gather silage before rain, in Australia the summer’s 45C heat can quickly dry out crops, so getting forage in fast is essential.
“We like to keep everything in-house to harvest at the correct stage of maturity for each crop and we have a crop manager who oversees the budgeting of crops across all of the farms,” says Mr Brown.
By July they hope to be milking 5,000 cows and have already lodged a development application to enable this. This means extra mouths to feed, so they have already started growing enough extra forage to meet demand.
Having such a big bank of feed is not only good for weather security, but it provides a consistent ration for long periods, meaning it is easier to maintain higher milk yields.
“We have enough maize to get through to July. We know our harvest will come in March which gives us four to five months up our sleeve before we open the pit. This gives us more consistency and reliability because the cows are on the same ration for longer periods,” says Mr Brown.
He believes housing cows year-round helps mitigate against weather extremes.
“Graziers are at the mercy of the environment,” he adds.
Perspective from the US
Hailstones as big as conkers can wipe out entire crops in the High Plains of the United States where Alex Steer helps manage a 2,700-cow Jersey herd.
“We get a lot of damage every year from hail. It tends to be very local, which means we get a different level of failure within each field.”
Although the Texan dairy has crop insurance it often leaves them out of pocket.
When a crop is damaged an adjuster will come out to the farm to assess it. If the crop loss is estimated at 80%, for example, the insurer will usually offer to pay about 60% immediately, or the farmer can choose to wait until harvest when he will get the full amount, providing the crop only yields 20% of its potential.
The trouble is, with hungry mouths to feed, few farmers can afford to wait that long.
“As a farmer you have to take the lower deal because you have to put a crop in the ground to feed the cows.”
- Milking 2,700 Jerseys
- Producing 28 litres at 4.9% fat and 3.8% protein
- Owns about 1,011ha, of which 810ha is irrigated land
- Sells milk to Hilmar cheese company
- Payment is linked to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange based on how much cheese will be produced from a certain amount of milk
In 2017 when the last crop failure happened they were forced to buy in about 40ha from a neighbour.
“It was a tough deal because it was a lot of money.”
This makes feed planning extremely difficult, but he tries to have a buffer to deal with these extreme weather events.
“I would love to shoot for a year’s buffer, but I have never had that. I’ve had 10 months.”
Another reason for this is that crop yields are so variable from year to year. In Texas, gale-force winds of up to 80mph and soaring temperatures of up to 40C can dry out crops in no time.
They mitigate this to some extent by irrigating water from underground wells to keep crops moist. This is relatively inexpensive with $500 (£389) abstraction payments made to the local district annually.
“Our biggest expense is our energy to pump the water; we have a mix of electric and manual gas. The major limitation is on how much we can physically pump.”
Even then, maize yields can vary from 16-30t/acre. This can make feed planning challenging, he concedes.
Feeders will work a week in advance planning budgets and inventories are kept up to date. Mr Steer works with a feed broker to buy protein and will lock up prices in advance if they look favourable.
The farm also works closely with a nutritionist to look at alternative supplements to keep within feed budgets of $4-4.50 (£3.30) a cow a day. The main forages grown are triticale, sorghum, maize and alfalfa with canola, cotton seed, dried distiller grains and maize purchased to balance rations.
Managing milk yield peaks and troughs can be hard with such big forage variations.
“We’ve gone for a whole year with just triticale as a forage base and I don’t think the cows made more than 26 litres of milk [a cow a day].”
They rely on “custom harvesters” to harvest, haul forage back to the farm and pack the clamp. The whole process is charged on a price per tonne basis. A separate team comes in to sheet the clamp.
With harvest and sheeting for maize and sorghum costing $350,000 (£272,000) it’s one of their biggest costs, but they deliver an efficient and cost-effective service.
“We looked at sheeting the clamp ourselves, but we couldn’t even come close as they get big discounts on the plastic.”
Thankfully they have 12,500t of maize in the pit from last season and are hoping this will last them up to this year’s harvest, giving them another opportunity to build their feed inventory.
How can we be better prepared in the UK?
1. Reduce your feed waste
One of the first things farmers should ask themselves is: How can you reduce waste?
The Smart Silage project led by the Institute of Biology, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University concluded that average dry matter losses during silage making (from field to feeding) are 25%.
In addition to the quantity of material lost in the process, quality also suffers since the highly valuable digestible fractions will make up a large proportion of the material lost.
A prolonged and inefficient fermentation in the clamp will lead to protein, digestible fibre and sugar losses – hygiene, consolidation, sealing and use of a suitable proven additive will minimise these losses.
Farmers need to assess how they can reduce losses in the following key areas: in the field, in the clamp and during feed out.
2. Value feed
To properly reduce waste, farmers have to start valuing the forage they make so they realise how much waste is costing them.
The cost of establishing, growing, harvesting and ensiling crops is significant and the value of high-quality forage in terms of increasing livestock performance and reducing concentrate cost should not be underestimated.
Many US farms have to buy in a large proportion of their forage from specialist growers, so they have a clear understanding of the cost, and how dry matter and nutrient losses must be minimised.
But in the UK, there can be a temptation to underestimate the cost and value of wasted forage because farmers have grown and stored it themselves and fail fully to cost out the whole process.
3. Improve storage capacity
Many farms have increased stock numbers, but have not expanded facilities for forage, and may not even have enough capacity for the forage they have, let alone more.
There is nothing worse for waste than overfilled clamps that cannot be well compacted.
While a greater depth of silage reduces the volume of surface in material in proportion to the whole clamp, it often means poor shoulder consolidation, difficult sealing and spoilage.
Many clamps may already be unfit for purpose, and these units will require upgraded facilities to meet tougher environmental regulations on effluent pollution.
Farmers should capitalise on this opportunity to expand storage and design in flexible options at the same time.
Open-ended clamps provide easy access at both ends, which allows farmers to refill half-empty clamps with fresh forage at one end, while they finish older preserves at the other.
This allows more flexibility when harvesting and simultaneously feeding silage through the season, with up to five cuts of grass, wholecrop, and maize often requiring storage and access for feeding for fully housed units.
Bales can be made without having to invest in extra storage, but they don’t always fit into everyone’s feeding systems.
Ag Bags are also an option, but both represent higher ongoing costs. However, they are good options for those with surplus forage who do not wish to incur the capital cost of additional clamp storage.
Clamps are a big capital cost, but it’s a good investment when you look at how much you spend on forage. If you spread the repayment over 20 years it would probably be the cheapest option, but it is a long-term commitment.
Other farmers have made good use of large feed pads against the wall of an existing clamp. It is relatively cheap but it creates a bigger surface area for run-off.
4. Spread your risk by growing more than one crop
Lucerne is worth considering on suitable land as it is a drought-tolerant crop. Alternatively, wholecrop offers farmers some flexibility in terms of a mid-summer harvest and reseeding opportunity.
It can help cover shortfalls of grass in a dry season or, if farmers have a plentiful supply of good quality grass silage, they can leave the crop and combine it.
Conversely, if maize goes in late and establishment is poor, winter wheat can help make up forage deficits because the crop will already be well established by March/April.
You need to assess your growing risks, soil type and forage requirements first, however.
Don’t leave yourself vulnerable. Look at your system and build in some resilience.
5. Build a bank of forage
To build a buffer you need just one year where you grow or buy more forage. Ideally, farmers should carry out a forage budget and plan so they have at least three months’ worth of maize in storage.
There’s a big advantage to not feeding maize fresh and to be in that position you need to have 15 months’ worth in year one. This enables the new crop to be fed from January through to December.
This means farmers could wait to open clamps in January rather than straight after harvest in the autumn and give the crop more time to ferment.
If all things are equal you only need to grow 12 months’ worth but if a poor year comes around you can end up back to square one. So in a good year you have to bank that feed again.
The downside is farmers need enough cash to make more. Conversely, banking too much can tie up too much cash in feed stocks and limit storage, so careful balance is required, depending on relative risk factors for each farm.