Look to alternative forages for cost cutting

Alternative forages are increasing in popularity, as bought-in feed costs continue to escalate. Jeremy Hunt takes a look at the alternative forage options available.

Fast-growing stubble-turnips, forage rape and rape/kale hybrids, swedes, kale and even fodder beet – just some of the alternative forage options beef producers should consider as a valuable source of feed and to improve grassland.

Improving grassland and producing high-quality grazing and grass silage has never been more important, as beef producers aim to reduce bought-in feed costs. But the range of alternative forages can be a real winner too – either for late summer feeding or for a crop that can be used well into the winter months, says Helen Mathieu of British Seed Houses.

“Rather than waiting until the middle of June to make a very stalky, high dry matter but low D-value silage, why not try cutting grass earlier, improve the D-value and gain a window of growing time to scratch-in a summer-sown brassica like stubble turnips? It’ll give you mid to late-summer grazing before an autumn cereal or grass-re-seed,” she suggests.

Ms Mathieu’s says a May-sown summer brassica will provide a crop to feed within eight weeks. Kale sown in late May/early June needs a good seed-bed and is slower-growing, taking four or five months to mature to provide a feed from late October through to February. Chicory – or a mix of chicory and red clover – will provide a summer grazing sward for suckler cows and calves or for finishing cattle.


The chicory mixtures of 50% grass, 30-40% chicory plus some red clover provide a high-quality grazing crop, according to Ms Mathieu. “Chicory is a perennial herb; it does need a warm soil but it’s massively productive from late April until September. Chicory has a low dry matter at 6-10%, is rich in minerals and has anthelmintic properties.

Chicory can be sown in spring to provide a ley lasting for three to six years. According to Ms Mathieu some suckled calf producers have been able to reduce the level of creep feed to their calves in summer, when cows and calves have been grazed on a chicory/grass mix.

The relative low-cost of growing “alternative forages” – as well their feed value – are encouraging renewed interest among beef producers. Growing costs are about £170-200 an acre to produce a high dry matter yield and a feed with increased energy levels.

“More beef producers are looking at these crops as part of their grassland rotation and as a means of providing up to a tonne more dry matter and a couple more units of ME compared to grass,” says Ms Mathieu.

EBLEX beef specialist Liz Genever says forage crops can offer beef producers a high-quality, flexible and low-cost alternative source of feed at a time when suckler herds are tackling input costs.

“There’s an excellent range of crop options to consider including rape, kale, the hybrid forages as well as stubble turnips. They’re providing a high-value feed source with good levels of ME and crude protein – as well as an important source of minerals – at a time in late summer onwards when grazing can be short,” says Dr Genever.

EBLEX, which is currently updating its advisory manual on forage crops, says beef farmers who are underway with grassland re-seeding this season should consider forage crops as a valuable break before pasture renewal.

CASE STUDY John Green, Melrose

A block of 22 acres of kale will be sown this spring to produce feed for John Green’s 60 Saler cross suckler cows at The Craggs, Lilliesleaf, Melrose, Scotland.

“It will give us a low-cost, high-protein feed for the cows between October and hopefully into April next year. We’ll divide it up into three-acre blocks and strip-graze it, although the cows will have a lie-back area and access to straw,” says Mr Green, who also runs the Greenall pedigree Charolais herd.

His enthusiasm for feeding forage crops to beef hasn’t been daunted by his experience last year, when a crop of the New Zealand-bred rape/kale hybrids was badly affected by the severe weather at a critical stage.

“It would have been a good crop for us but the weather was exceptionally bad and hit it hard, so we’re hoping the thick stems and leaves of the kale will be able to cope better.”

He’s no newcomer to out-wintering sucklers, but says that in the past when he’s used stubble ground there’s still been a labour cost by having to cart feed to cows every day.

“The kale should make life easier with just the fence to move and the straw to top up. We’ll follow it with spring barley and then grass and then back to kale in a three-year rotation.”

CASE STUDY Richard Baron, Northumberland

Northumberland hill farmer Richard Baron found a six-acre block of rape/kale hybrids provided him with a valuable supplementary grazing option in late summer for suckler cows and calves.

“It was no more expensive than grass seed. We only went across with the discs – it wasn’t ploughed – we gave it 2cwt of fertiliser and it was direct drilled in early May. Contractor’s costs were £25 an acre,” said Mr Baron of White Hall Farm, Sleet, near Hexham, who runs 85 sucklers, including 40 pedigree South Devons.

The six acres – three acres of each crop – fed 31 cows and calves for 70 days starting in mid-July. Cows were strip-grazed along a 100-yard fence and also had access to a grass field and to straw.

“It’s like going back to the crops we used to grow years ago, but we need to look at all the options these days. We were impressed with the yield and how well it established. We were feeding cows on it within eight weeks,” said Mr Baron.

At a time of year when his farm can run short of grass, the spring-sown forage crops filled the gap. “The cows milked a lot better than they do off grass and the April-born calves were soon taking plenty of it too.”

A six-acre field of red clover silage has also proved a success when costings showed it was feeding six to seven-month-old beef heifers for 20p a day.

“We sowed in it late May and took 48 round-bales off the field in August – and we had no nitrogen costs,” said Mr Baron, who expects to get five to seven years out of the crop. His batch of heifers gained 150kg during the 100 days they were fed the red clover silage, as well a 1kg a head a day of a blend. Total cost was £20 a head.

“We’d considered growing a crop of rape/kale hybrids for the heifers and letting them run out from a building to graze the crop during the day. But the ground conditions were just too wet to do it so we turned sheep on instead.”

This season will see 12 acres of chicory being sown at White Hall Farm. “We’ll use this for cows in mid-summer. Chicory is supposed to provide a mineral boost, which we hope will help fertility as cows go to the bull.”

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