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Agribusiness News June 2024 – Forage First Sucklers

31 May 2024

Forage First Suckler Systems

The new Forage First Suckler Systems guide by SAC Consulting, funded by the University Innovation Fund (UIF), provides advice on how to develop a low cost forage based suckler cow system that achieves high utilisation of grazing resources, optimises output, productivity, and reduces wintering costs to promote profitability.

Optimising production off forage

Pasture can meet the nutritional requirements of a suckler cow at all stages of production, support growth rates of over 1.3kg/day in calves to weaning, and greater than this, in growing and finishing stock to finish them at 18 months with the right genetics.

To achieve a low-cost forage only suckler system, whilst optimising output and profit per hectare, producers should:

  • Best match animal demands with pasture supply by calving in the spring.
  • Run a tight calving period of 6-9 weeks.
  • Use rotational grazing to gain control over pasture, optimise utilisation and quality, and to extend the grazing season.
  • Review lowest cost wintering options.
  • Run appropriate genetics that suit the system.

Matching supply and demand

Aim to time calving, mating and lactation with peak pasture growth in spring and summer, in order to meet the highest demands off pasture.  When pasture growth drops in the autumn, so does the feed demand of the cow post weaning.

It costs £0.44 per day more (34%) to meet the nutritional requirement of a lactating cow (12.9kgDM, £1.71/day) compared to a dry cow (9.5kgDM, £1.27/day) on a silage diet.  Therefore, calving should be timed to best match spring pasture growth so that cows can be turned out / stocked to calve outdoors on sufficient pasture covers (5-6cm) to avoid the need to supplement.

Tackling winter costs

Set stocking is wasteful providing poor pasture utilisation and control over quality.  To extend the grazing season and reduce wintering costs, cattle must be on a rotational grazing system as this optimises production per hectare whilst also carrying more covers into the autumn.

Housing costs aside, winter feed costs for many conventional systems are crippling with a 180-day winter costing as much as £229 per cow in silage alone based on £26/t fresh weight.

To make suckler cows profitable, we must:

  1. Extend the grazing season to reduce the winter feeding period.
  2. Assess winter feeding strategies to reduce feed and housing costs for example through the use of deferred grazing, bale grazing or forage crops.

Extending the grazing season

In the Autumn, every day cows are still out grazing at pasture saves £1.27 per cow in silage alone.  For a 100-cow herd this amounts to £127 and another £18.30 in straw, if housed on bedded courts.

Putting up an electric wire to sub-divide grazing into 1-3 day shifts pays dividends as an extra week outside for a herd of 100 cows would save £1,017 in silage and straw alone.  Even better – daily shifts will both improve utilisation and reduce the poaching risk through reduced grazing duration.

Planned deferred grazing involving setting aside (stock piling) pasture in the summer to allow covers to build (+15cm) for grazing in the autumn/winter is allowing a growing number of farms to dramatically reduce their wintering costs.  However, deferred grazing is only appropriate if soil type and rainfall are suitable for winter grazing without causing damage to the existing sward or soil.

Strip or paddock grazing reduces wastage making the pasture go further.  If the acreage is limited, grazing days can be extended by supplementary feeding including placing bales out prior to winter.

The shut off date affects both yields and feed quality:

  • Shutting off in spring/early summer maximises yield but sacrifices quality. ‘Standing hay’ is best suited to dry cows.  Shutting off in Spring Summer is poor use of improved ground due to loss of production potential, so more appropriate for hill ground.
  • Shutting off from July onwards/post silage/grazing generates lower yields but a higher quality feed. Ideal for dry cows and better suited to youngstock.

Both digital and physical copies of the guide are now available.  Email to get your free copy.


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