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Control the controllables (Sept 23)

Producers can do little about the external factors impacting their herds and businesses, but they can focus on forage quality and feed intakes. We spoke to a nutritionist to find out more.


Concentrating on areas that can be influenced and improved, rather than issues predominantly outside producers’ control such as the weather or falling milk prices, will help to maximise dairy margins.

That’s according to KW Feeds’ Charlotte Ward, who explains that while milk-cheque concerns are high on producers’ agendas, the key is to focus attention, heading into autumn/winter, on the most efficient use of home-grown feed to try and alleviate some pressure on lower milk prices.

“There’s plenty of forage this winter, compared to recent years, with many clamps full and grass growth much greater than 2022, so there is an opportunity to make the most of forage and improve feed efficiencies,” says Ms Ward.

“This, in turn, allows producers to look at best-cost options to balance diets, and to ensure they are driving profit as much as possible.”

Grass growth has been above average in 2023, with July seeing more than two to three times more rainfall than usual. And despite some earlier cuts potentially being disrupted by the weather, subsequent cuts are expected to add to an abundance of grass silage.

That said, although there’s a positive outlook in terms of quantity, quality is likely to be variable. A more fibrous and less digestible forage, with high lignin levels and lower energy and protein, may negatively impact intakes and milk production on some units, for example.

“The key is to make the most of this forage, and to do so means producers must know their baseline. Test all clamps, and do it regularly,” stresses Ms Ward.

“Regular forage analysis is vital to achieve true diet optimisation. This allows producers to identify when they need to invest in feed, and make better cost decisions based on those needs,” she adds.

The rainfall experienced through July also increases the risk of mould contamination and mycotoxin threat, due to potential issues with trying to ensile forages in wetter weather.

“Mycotoxins can be brought in from the field, or can actually develop in the clamp, as in the case of Penicillium mycotoxins, and end up in the ensiled forage,” says Ms Ward.

Mycotoxin risk

“Even with good silage management, there is still a mycotoxin risk. So regular forage samples can help to identify any problems.

Mycotoxin risk: moulds can develop in the clamp

“It’s important to understand where ‘enemies’ are lurking and avoid them stripping valuable energy from the diet and away from productivity, leading to possible compromises in cow health too.”

“When producers know their baseline it’s time to consider the best-cost options to carefully balance rations and supplement specific energy and protein requirements,” adds Ms Ward.

With high-lignin silages, for example, there will be a requirement to supplement more energy in the rations to maintain production, or to pre-treat forages to help break down the fibre, improve digestibility and improve feed efficiency.

With low protein levels (14.3% according to the latest Trouw figures) in grass silage, and maize looking good for many, high energy and liquid protein sources, such as regulated-release urea molasses, could provide a good-value option as, for example, an alternative to traditional dry proteins.

Feed efficiency is directly linked to making best use of forage and balancing rations appropriately. This will then also produce a return on milk constituents as well as yields. “Every kilogramme of feed is being converted into more milk. So focus on the balance of the ration to avoid wasting feed,” says Ms Ward.

“In times of lower milk prices and higher feed prices, this is key. Look at the best-cost options and how you can balance the ration effectively to increase feed efficiency and milk from forage.”

Milk-to-feed-price ratio

Milk prices have fallen significantly and, despite feed prices also dropping slightly, the current milk-to-feed price ratio (MFPR) is concerning, so opportunities to drive profits must be taken.

A favourable MFPR would be around 1.5:1, with the value of milk at 50% more than that of feed. With a current ratio of close to 1.2:1, the pressure on margins is clear.

“These current prices, coupled with weather conditions, are factors that producers can do little about,” adds Ms Ward.

“But making better use of forage, improving feed efficiencies and making more informed decisions about when to invest in feeds can make a difference. Producers can exert some control here.”

Steps to mitigate milk-price concerns

● Regular forage analysis – know the baseline

● Consider mycotoxin threat

● Look at best-cost options to supplement energy and protein levels

● Focus on balance of ration – avoid wasting feed and make the most of forage

● Focus on what can be influenced – support cow health, fertility, performance

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