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Mind the forage gap (Feb 23)

Careful planning, with continuous monitoring, is key to ensuring forage stocks produced this coming season match next winter’s requirements – whatever the weather.


No-one could have predicted 2022’s extreme weather conditions that led to significantly reduced grass silage production and below-average maize crops in some parts of the UK. With that in mind, now is the time to begin planning and help reduce the risk of a repeat this year. Even in those areas that experienced good forage production, planning is vital to ensure the most from all home-grown feed is achieved in 2023. Ensuring there are adequate forage stocks will help insulate margins against continued high purchased-feed prices while also helping to reduce dairy businesses’ dependence on purchased feeds to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

With turnout fast approaching, Trouw Nutrition GB’s Isabelle England says producers’ focus needs to turn towards maximising production from grazing. “Producers should know what will be in front of the cows because this will allow them to more accurately manage their expectations from grass,” she says. “The composition of spring grass is extremely variable when compared to winter feeding.”

Achieving maximum production from grazed grass while maintaining performance requires proactive management, including but not limited to: grass composition and quality, efficiency of supplemental feeding, body condition score, mineral supplementation, sward management, and stage of production.

Ms England stresses that grass growth and composition is extremely variable, both seasonally and between regions. So far, this year’s winter has been relatively mild with some cold snaps, meaning over-wintered grass growth could look different to 2022, which saw a particularly mild winter. Grass continued to grow through the winter, and grass quality was poorer due to increases in total fibre and the undigestible fibre of a more mature plant.

“Research shows that most cool-season grasses, like those typically grown in the UK, produce the majority of their season-long yield during the spring and autumn. Growth of these grasses slows as temperatures rise above around 20°C,” she says.

“Properly managing stocking density during the rapid spring growth can help extend the stand of the grass. Being proactive in the spring offers positive results throughout the year. Spring grass allowance has the largest continuing effect on milk yield and milk constituents for the rest of the season, which means that early-season grass intake must be maximised.

Unlock potential

“Measuring and understanding both grass quantity and quality is key to unlocking the potential of grazing,” she adds.

“Good grass growth does not necessarily mean that it has the quality to match. What you get from grass isn’t just dependent on growth, but on its nutritional value and on how much cows can eat.

“The nutritional value of pasture varies with season, growth stage and age of regrowth, and varies significantly within regions. Leafy spring swards have a higher feed value than higher-fibre lower-digestibility mid-season grass.”

Ms England adds that early-season growth was better in 2021 than 2022, but predicted milk from forage yield was higher in spring 2022 due to better grazing quality and intake potential.

“Finding a balance between maximum grass intake, correct supplementation and milk yield can be difficult. Increasing concentrate feeding will have a negative impact on grass intake and, therefore, cost of production. But under supplementing at grass will reduce total dry matter intake and, consequently, performance.

“Measurement is key to making the best of grazing. Get into the habit of regularly plate-metering the grazing platform to understand what is available, and to allow better management of covers.”

She also recommends taking fresh grass samples, regularly, and utilising Trouw Nutrition’s milk yield from grazing predictor, to help improve early utilisation, maximise early grazing, and ensure correct supplementation, all of which will improve efficiency. With winter 2023/2024 in mind, Promar consultant Sarah Tucker urges producers to make an honest assessment of 2022’s production and whether there were reasons, other than the weather, which contributed to any shortfall. For example, were more animals carried through the winter?

“The start point for 2023 is to be clear about what livestock will be fed next winter. How many milking cows, dry cows and replacements will be carried and how much forage do they need for buffer feeding and when fully housed? What other animals, beef and sheep for example, will place demands on forage stocks?

“Then determine how many hectares of each forage are to be grown, how many cuts of grass silage are expected to be taken, and the yield per cut, and calculate the total production. Be realistic about the number of cuts and yields. A good start point is to look at the average yield, by crop and by cut, during the past three years and always budget low, rather than high, to avoid overestimating production.

Historical averages

“An alternative planning approach is to use the historical average yields achieved to determine how many hectares of each forage need to be grown to meet anticipated requirements,” she says.

“Either way, by comparing expected requirements with anticipated production, producers can identify any gap and begin planning to balance demand and supply. And the sooner this is done, the greater the flexibility, and the more options producers will have.”

If producers are unable to meet forage requirements from their own resources, Miss Tucker suggests looking at options to reduce demand, such as carrying fewer animals. Or explore the opportunities to buy forage from neighbouring farms.

“In many parts of the UK there is increasing interest from arable businesses looking to grow maize on contract for dairy producers. So that could be an option,” she says

“The sooner a detailed plan is developed, the easier it will be to incorporate a degree of flexibility. It is then vital to monitor the plan closely to allow you to react during the season.

“Did first cut yield the quantity expected and is quality on target? Was all the maize drilled and will the expected hectarage of second-cut silage, and subsequent cuts, be available? Will you have as many mouths to feed as expected or have numbers increased or fallen? These are all questions that need to be asked and answered to keep forage stocks on track.”

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