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Managing Valuable Fodder

24 September 2018

Trusting in a kind autumn or early spring to shorten the housing period is an option but it needs to be done consciously to gauge exposure to more expensive feed prices, damaging grass-leys, affecting cow body condition or youngstock growth rates.

Recent farm visits suggest some are a bit more relaxed about available winter forage supplies as rain reinvigorated grass growth and helped establish forage crops.  However, not all fodder is safely in the clamp yet, growth has slowed with the temperature, and there are still many worrying cases out there.  That’s without mentioning tight cash flow or the higher cost of purchased feeds.  This leaves little surplus for an uncertain length of winter.  Firstly, we need to deal with the known unknowns.

“We’re having many conversations across the country, roughly calculating how much fodder has been clamped or baled relative to the expected number of ‘mouths’ taken through the winter.  The sooner we know that, the quicker we can deal with any deficit and better control timing of buying feeds or selling livestock where needed.  This process quickly focuses the attention on the scale of management decisions required.  We should also remember it isn’t as binary as simply buying and selling – we need to make best use of what we do have” continues Robert.

What’s being fed?

SAC labs have examples of grass silages that are over 25% higher in drymatter (DM) than in a more regular year, and with slightly higher energy and protein content and predicted voluntary intakes.  This makes it a completely different forage, which needs to be rationed and managed differently at feedout.  Feeding higher quality feed ad-lib risks, for example, spring calving beef cows adding unnecessary condition and uses precious fodder reserves that could be better allocated to high priority thin cows or growing stock.  It may also reduce the need to buy as much concentrate feeding, if that cash could be better used buying e.g. straw.

Silages that are also very dry risk aerobic deterioration resulting in increased spoilage at the silage face and in the trough.  Greater attention to detail is required to minimise these losses, which can amount to 5-10% of total volume.  Also, do not feed mouldy silage to high-risk animals such as pregnant cows or sheep.

It is likely that first cut is significantly dryer than second/later cuts.  Provided nutritional requirements are being met, feeding drier higher fibre silage to straw-bedded cattle will reduce overall bedding costs too.

If there is not enough forage, treating straw with ammonia could be an option.  It increases straws digestibility and enriches with nitrogen, although seek nutritional advice.  Alternatively, clean straw and a balanced concentrate works but whether feeding or bedding, minimise straw weathering, which only increases wastage or reduces absorbency factor respectively.

Who’s being fed?

Cattle at a feed railFocus on only taking productive animals through the winter.  However, whilst a feed budget may imply e.g. the sale of some weaned calves this autumn, rather than yearlings next spring, the impact on the whole business needs to be considered.  The margin may be reduced if more feed is purchased but provided it remains significantly positive and cash, labour and housing cannot be better utilised elsewhere, any margin is better than none.

Despite it being counterintuitive, feeding growing cattle a more intensive straw and concentrate ration may be better for the business as it frees up silage for other livestock, results in a drier ration being fed to loose-housed cattle, and ultimately results in a shorter finishing time, using less feed overall.

Sharpened focus on straw use

Various options need to be considered to make better use of straw.  There is a sharper focus on it this year but it is an increasing concern with shorter strawed varieties, competition from biomass burners, chopping to retain organic matter in arable land and a policy to minimising compaction through controlled traffic systems.

Aiming to shorten the winter through e.g. deferred grazing a drier hill block, planting forage rye, or similar, for early spring grazing have been shown to be really effective and cannot be discounted off-hand.  Interpreting how this fits individual farms is the tricky bit but aiming to shorten the winter by 2-weeks at the start and end could save 15-20% in bedding and some forage, which makes it a serious opportunity.

Adaption to loose-bedded sheds could significantly reduce bedding demands too.  Deeper sheds that can afford to integrate a scrapped passage have been shown to reduce bedding demands by 30% without affecting stocking rate.  Relocating water troughs so they are only accessed from this feed passage also reduces bedding needs.  Where relevant, creating a barrier to avoid outside water ingress at doorways etc. is also very effective.

There are lots of potential options to increase forage reserves, reduce feed and bedding requirements, make better use of what is available and better target feeding of purchased concentrates (or cereals that could otherwise have been sold).  It is best to assess now, review once all forage has been harvested and silage analysis taken, and again once settled into the winter routine.  These will be key timings to ensure management decisions are taken timeously to avoid compromising performance or to capitalise on the market.

Robert Logan,


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