Record rainfall brings a high cost in winter bills
By Marianne Curtis
THERE may have been fewer wet days recently, but record rainfall this autumn has left many producers facing high winter feed and bedding bills and these costs could rise if action is not taken early, warn consultants.
Livestock farms with no arable area to provide straw are likely to suffer most as winter wears on, says Devon-based ADAS beef and sheep consultant Charles Stone. "In the West Country straw is expensive and on some farms silage is also in short supply."
Many producers have been forced to house early-lambing ewes four to six weeks earlier than usual, which will reduce feed stocks, he adds. "On one farm which made extra silage this year, housed ewes are eating 4kg of silage a head a day meaning silage may run out for beef cattle before the end of winter."
Working out availability of feed and livestock requirements now could save headaches later, advises Mr Stone. "Waiting until you run out of feed means you will be in the market at the same time as everyone else and prices will rocket.
"Units which have sold dairy cows may have silage to sell, so it is worth asking around."
Even where silage is plentiful, feeding too much – particularly to milking cows – may not pay, according to Midlands-based Kite consultant John Allen. "We are seeing both poor quality grass and maize silage which can have a big impact on milk yield, depressing it by three to four litres a cow a day.
"While it is tempting to feed as much silage as possible from a cashflow point of view, it could pay to speak with your bank manager about carrying some over to next year. Improving diet specs by using feeds such as brewers grains will pay off in better cow performance."
But supplementing with alternative feeds is unlikely to prove a cheap option, according to Shropshire-based Promar dairy consultant Peter Slark. "Feeds such as brewers grains and citrus pulp are expensive and in short supply, so if you know you will be short of feed secure these feeds now. Many producers have housed three to four weeks earlier than usual due to wet weather, so winter feeding costs will be high.
"But higher milk margins this year mean people are prepared to feed extra concentrates which is helping to eke out forage," he says. When forage is in short supply, prioritise it according to stock class, advises Mr Slark. "Save silage for cows and feed youngstock on straw and concentrates; straw availability is reasonable in Shropshire, although quality could be better. Damp straw is less absorbent and could lead to mastitis problems when used for bedding but using lime products as well as straw may help."
Although straw is not an issue for out-wintered beef cattle, saturated ground means poaching is already a real problem, says Mr Stone. "As long as cattle have enough food, solid ground to eat on and a dry area to lie, they cope with wet weather. But they are damaging land which can be an issue in Environmentally Sensitive Areas such as Exmoor.
"A number of producers are seeking housing for cattle, but that option is not available to herds with TB which are unable to move stock away from the holding."
While housing is the ideal for wintering cattle, Farming and Rural Conservation Agency policy adviser on ESAs, Kearan Gannon, accepts that is not always possible. "Poaching may occur in small localised areas, such as gateways and feeding areas, but we are not aware of a big problem. Good management practices, including moving feed troughs around, will help." *
• Extended housing period.
• Source extra forage early.
• Minimise poaching.