Feeding the Herd: Using Forage More Efficiently

ANALYSIS - Volatile times are putting pressure on dairy farms. Melanie Epp examines how forage can be maximised to cut a farm's biggest cost - feeding.
calendar icon 17 June 2015
clock icon 4 minute read

In the post-quota era price volatility has raised concerns for many dairy producers. And although purchased feed prices have dropped, increased global demand could lead to price increases in the very near future.

According to an evidence report from DairyCo (2015), feed and forage costs are the single largest cost to dairy farms in Great Britain. In fact, they account for over 30 per cent of total farm costs, which makes it all the more important to find cost-reducing solutions.

“The UK dairy industry faces many of the same challenges as other farming sectors, the most significant of which is increased commodity price volatility,” says Paul Billings, Agricultural Director, Germinal. “As a consequence, the more progressive dairy farms are gearing themselves to be sustainable in this volatile climate, and greater reliance on forage is a key element.”

"...there are alternative forages that can play a role in increasing forage output"

Dry matter production from grass, though, is well below its potential. Billings says this is due in part to relatively low grassland reseeding rates. “Reseeding rates in the UK are around 2–3 per cent, which means that on average the swards are being expected to perform way beyond the realistic productive life of 8–10 years,” he says.

Also, there is the question of utilization, which could also stand improvement. In the UK, average grass utilization is between 4 and 6 tonnes DM per hectare. “But forward-looking farmers should be aiming for 12–14 utilized tonnes DM per hectare,” says Billings. “A few are already achieving this.”

The relationship between grass utilization and net profit is clear though. Researchers at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) have been working on a two-year programme to investigate the impact of introducing fresh grass into the diet of high-yielding, housed cows. In the study, fresh grass was fed at three different rates: 0 per cent (100 per cent TMR), 25 per cent (75 per cent TMR) and 50 per cent (50 per cent TMR).

“Over the course of the study, dry matter intake and milk yields were reduced by 1.4 and 4.9 kg/day respectively when grass was included in the diet,” says Dr. Debbie McConnell, R&Dmanager at DairyCo. “Despite this reduction, the 50 per cent grass diet reduced feed costs by 3.7ppl per cow per day, delivering the highest margin over feed costs in most economic scenarios.”

Increasing forage productivity reduces housing and bedding costs, improving carbon footprint and milk's image. 

Beyond grass, McConnell notes that there are alternative forages that can play a role in increasing forage output. Alternatives include companion species like white clover and perennial chicory, and fodder crops such as brassicas. Red clover and lucerne can play a role in boosting the potential from silage.

Increasing forage production isn’t just about reducing costs, though, says Billings. There are other benefits to be gained, including reduced housing and bedding costs, reduced carbon footprint and the improved image of milk production with the consumer. “Forage-based systems have a more positive image with the consumer, thereby enhancing the value of the product,” he says.

Another benefit of increasing forage production comes in the form of soil health. Recent DairyCo research has shown that the economic cost of compaction exceeds £250 per hectare per annum. These losses are attributed to reduced sward productivity, lost grazing days and poor nutrient efficiency.

“A healthy, productive soil is key to underpinning any profitable grassland system and careful attention must be paid to soil fertility, structure and biology to maximize the return from grass,” says McConnell. “The research has been investigating how effective soil looseners are at dealing with compaction, and the healthy grassland soils pocketbook helps outline if and when these should be used to aerate the soil.”

Achieving Optimum Silage Quality

Achieving optimum silage quality starts with the quality of the grass in the sward, says Billings. To ensure swards reach optimum quality, reseeding is necessary. It is equally important to choose the best available varieties.

To do this, view the 2015/2016 Recommended Grass and Clover Lists for England and Wales, available for free online. Finally, consider the importance of both timing and management.

The objective, says Billings, is to cut the grass at optimum D-value, which is typically one week before the grass heads. “To achieve this it is important to use mixtures comprising of varieties with heading dates that are close together,” he notes.

Over the last 50 years, grass-breeding programs have worked to improve forage production. It is thought that their work has improved grass varieties through a 4–5 per cent increase in DM yield and a 10g/kg increase in digestibility per decade. “As a result, the varieties now available on the Recommended Grass and Clover Lists typically produce an extra 2.5t DM/ha and an extra 0.8 MJ/kg DM,” says McConnell.

Furthermore, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) has co-funded a project to investigate how novel traits, like improving nitrogen and phosphorus use efficiency in plants and increased drought tolerance, can be incorporated to reduce fertilizer costs.

To learn more about AHDB-Dairy’s forage-related research, visit www.adhb.dairy.org.uk.

Melanie Epp

Melanie Epp
Freelance journalist

Melanie Epp is a freelance agricultural journalist from Canada, although she currently resides in Belgium. She writes about livestock, horticultural and crop production for a variety of publications around the globe. Website: www.melanierepp.com

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