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How can we deal with low forages this winter?

There are always variations in a season, bringing different opportunities or problems for different locations or farming systems. However, this year’s weather events have developed into a consistent challenge for all livestock types.

A late and wet spring caused most areas to keep cows housed longer, using up any remaining silage stocks. UK rainfall through the first quarter of 2018 (Jan, Feb, Mar) was 7.1% higher than 2017 and temperatures were 60% lower for the same period, significantly reducing any early grass growth which could have usually been captured with an early graze or 1st cut silage.

Quarter 2 (April, May, June) gave a 14.6% rainfall reduction compared to 2017 and a 2.5% increase in temperature but perhaps the biggest impact (so far) is July’s 35% reduction in rainfall compared to 2017 and 15% increase in average temperature, all accumulating into a situation of high early season silage use, low early season grass growth, low or no 2nd and 3rd cut silage options and units already using their future winter stocks. Forage stocks are likely to be severely depleted for this coming winter as feedback suggests wholecrop yields are down and maize crops are starting to look stressed. So how can we feed dairy cows this winter? We are left with three key considerations…

Source alternative forages

Buying alternative forages should be a realistic option for many farmers but again availability will be low. Analyse before you buy; what might seem cheap may end up costing a lot of money to balance. Buying wholecrop to extend grass silage stocks is a very good idea, but for every 1kg dry matter of grass silage swapped for 1kg dry matter of wholecrop, you will require an extra 0.2kg of rapeseed meal or 0.15kg of soya. Feeding dry, structural forages such as straw, hay or lucerne may be an option. Keep in mind the limiting factors of such forages – for example, straw is of course low in energy and protein, hay and lucerne can have healthy protein levels but will require an energy lift to balance, particularly hay. Based on replacing grass silage, for every 1kg of dry matter silage replaced with hay, you will require 75g/h/d of protected fat or 0.2kg of wheat. Doing this with hay will keep protein relatively consistent, however the same exercise using lucerne will yield a protein saving of approx. 0.2kg rape.

Increasing purchased feed rates

For most, this is going to be the only option and one that will require careful planning. Options here may be decreased due to availability but farmers should be on the look out to manage intakes whether it be off compound and dry blends or moist feeds and by-products. The message is the same as for forage, consider the food group and balance accordingly. For example some units may be relying on a strong maize crop to feed for the winter, contracting into a feed low in protein and fibre could be a mistake, as they are the key elements to be supplemented when balancing high maize intakes. A similar method for those relying on hay to space out silage use, a structural fibrous forage will require extra carbohydrates to drive rumen function, intakes and production.

Consider rumen health – whilst fibrous supplemental feeds can be fed to help rumen health, the rumen will still need structural fibre especially if high energy by-products are fed such as bread waste or biscuit meal which whilst good in quality, are highly fermentable and need to be closely balanced.

Ensuring costs do not spiral out of control

Cows must be fed properly, intake requirements must be reached and targets for fertility and health must still be hit, but we must still consider costs, and whilst these may well rise we must ensure that rise is monitored and mitigated based on performance where possible.

As I write this piece, wheat is trading at £199/t, at 11.8ME on a fresh weight basis 1kg should yield approximately 2.2 litres milk response and at a milk price of 27 ppl the return is clearly positive, however we know we don’t see that full response, and as feed rates increase we will often experience a diminishing response much above an 8kg/h/d feed rate. So instead of assuming what a feed will yield, calculate what is required and determine along with your nutritionist if you feel this response is realistic.

Ensure your choice of feed meets the businesses ‘first limiting factor’. Different units will have different requirements, for example for straight forage reduction, high fibre diets will be required as higher NDF (Neutral Detergent Fibre) will fill cows up and therefore reduce forage requirements, however this may not help if the unit requires increased milk proteins as this points towards a starch based diet.

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