Clover and mixed forage offer big cash benefits
In the run up to the European Dairy Farming Event, FW is running a series on coping with lower milk prices. This will be the focus of a display and competition in the Spotlight on Profit exhibit at the event on Sept 17 and 18, sponsored by the RABDF, Midland Bank, the MDC, DRC and FW.
In the coming weeks we will ask key industry specialists to advise on how best to lift profits, either by increasing milk price or balancing overheads. This week Jessica Buss finds out how costs can be cut by improving forage use.
MIXED forages, better use of clover and extending the grazing season into the autumn could improve profits by £20 a cow on one Cumbrian dairy unit.
Malcolm Slack runs 180 cows and 90 followers at a stocking rate of 2.79 cows/ha (1.1/acre) on his Hartlaw Farm, Silloth.
Cows are rotationally set stocked during the grazing season, and the winter diet is grass-silage based. Half the 7368-litre herd, which produces 4118 litres from forage, calves from January to April and half from July to September. The high forage diet produces high quality milk at 4.18% fat and 3.50% protein.
Our troubleshooter DRC consultant and SAC forage specialist John Bax, felt the existing set-stocked system performed well.
Turnout, at the beginning April, is early for the location and even when weather is not ideal, cows go out by day when grass is available. From mid-April cows graze day and night, and concentrates are only fed in the parlour to cows giving more than 20 litres. Buffer feeding starts in mid-September.
Mr Bax said that although it was technically possible to achieve 25-litres from grass in May before introducing concentrates, this herd had fresh calvers then which should not be pushed too hard until in-calf.
In the autumn cows are housed in mid to late October.
"It is hard to get milk from grass late in the grazing season and ground conditions can become difficult," said Mr Slack.
But Mr Bax felt that by grazing cows for three to four hours a day, another three or four weeks grazing would be possible. Extra grazing in this way could raise yields by up to two litres a cow, he said. If Mr Slack kept 150 cows out an extra 25 days, and achieved an extra litre a cow that milk will be worth £750.
"Later lactation cows could be used to test the system," said Mr Bax. "Care would be needed to ensure high yielders got the energy they needed, but they can also give a good response to autumn grass."
He advised Mr Slack to set up a block grazing system to walk cows over long grass. That may mean having to work on fencing and roads. Keeping cows out for longer would give them more exercise, improve their health, and make it easier to spot bulling cows and scrape out.
Silage use would also fall by 4kg DM a head a day for the extra period of grazing. The 18t of silage dry matter saved could be beneficial when forage was in short supply, and that silage had cost £1200 to produce, he reminded Mr Slack.
Further savings in forage costs could be possible by increasing the white clover content of swards to cut nitrogen fertiliser use in summer, says Mr Bax. Several newer white clover varieties can withstand cutting and N applications.
Mr Slacks grazing ground receives 325kg/ha (260 units/acre) of nitrogen a year. Attempts to reduce its use should be made gradually and based on the season, advised Mr Bax. But the farms tight stocking would not allow nitrogen fertiliser to be cut totally.
In winter high quality forage already encouraged high intakes.
The silage-based winter diet is complemented with grain beet to help increase intakes. Maize is not an option on the farm because land is too wet at harvest.
Mr Bax advised that if yields were going to rise further, whole-crop could benefit cow health and reduce the risk of poor quality grass silage damaging performance.
Whole-crop was also cheap to grow, costing only £40/t of dry matter, excluding storage costs, as against grass silage at £55/t DM. But until now Mr Slack had not harvested whole-crop. "It would need contractors, grass grows well and grainbeet is cheap as an alternative forage," he said.
But Mr Bax suggested growing only 10ha (25 acres) of wheat to supply about 4kg DM a cow a day through the winter, enough for cows diets to benefit. Replacing grass silage with whole-crop would cut Mr Slacks forage costs by about £1800. *
More white clover in the sward could help Malcolm Slack (left) cut N fertiliser use in the summer, suggests SAC forage specialist John Bax.
• Extra autumn grazing worth £750 in milk sales
• Extending grazing saves £1200 in forage costs.
• Whole-crop cereals can benefit cow health and save £1800.