High yielders can make more of grass, too

Producing more milk from forage is often seen as the preserve of extensive, low-yielding herds – but intensive, high-yielding systems can benefit too. Grass is the cheapest form of feed, and although there can be some barriers to maximising usage, they are usually not difficult or expensive to overcome.

According to Richard Simpson, development director at dairy specialist Kingshay, boosting milk produced from forage will benefit the bottom line of almost any dairy business, small or large. “There is a lot of potential for the majority of herds – what is needed is belief and confidence in your system and then training of the appropriate management skills.”

The main obstacles to getting more from forage, particularly from grazing, are insufficient farm tracks, inflexible fencing, and a desire to control the whole ration for management ease. However, as visitors to this year’s Grassland & Muck Event will see, there are plenty of ways around these barriers, with very little expenditure.

Mr Simpson, who will be speaking at the event, says the key is paying attention to detail and adopting a flexible approach. “Most cows are turned out now so the first stage is to look at how to get more from grazing this summer.”

That involves growing good quality grass and clover swards, with the best varieties, and making effective use of manures and fertilisers for optimum performance. To help farmers to balance nutrient requirements, Yara will be holding a Grassland Clinic on stand 308, with the ultimate aim of boosting grazing intakes and promoting animal health.

In a high yielding herd, Mr Simpson suggests targeting grazing at lower yielding cows producing up to 30 litres per day, with appropriate concentrates fed in the parlour. “That’s not to say that higher yielders can’t graze, they just need more supplementation. It’s about achieving milk from grass without losing significant yield – there is a balance to be found.”

Richard Simpson

On average, Kingshay farmers produced 33% of their milk from forage in the rolling year to February 2017. Yields across the average and top 10% of producers – analysed by their production from forage – were similar, at around 7,800 litres, but the top 10% produced 55% of that milk from forage.

As a result, their margin over purchased feed improved to 19.69p/litre against an average of 17.25p/litre, despite similar milk prices. In contrast, the bottom quartile of producers had higher yields – at 8,122 litres, but only produced 16% of that from forage, resulting in a margin of just 15.78p/litre.

“Focussing on the figures really is worthwhile,” says Mr Simpson. “If you benchmark you know where you are and can plan to move forward; it’s all about realising the true value of forage.”

Rotational grazing is a key part of getting the most from grass, which does require weekly monitoring of grass growth and often temporary fencing; which will be on display at the Grassland & Muck Event. “Good farm tracks will extend your grazing season, but at drier times of the year they’re not essential,” he explains. “However, grazing well does require flexibility and more day to day management. It can help to get one person to take responsibility for this – and don’t forget to cut back on concentrate usage to allow the cows to actually achieve more from forage, or supplement where necessary.”

Of course, maximising the use of forage isn’t just about grazing – it’s also about making the best quality silage and feeding it well. “Those producers who always get the best silage do it through having the best management and staying in control of everything they can control,” says Mr Simpson. “It’s about getting all the basics right at every stage: That does take effort but the returns really are worth it.”

Target guidelines

  • Most herds should be able to achieve over 3,000 litres of milk from forage per cow.
  • Over 4,000 litres is a good target for many, with a few herds achieving over 5,000 litres.
  • Herds stocked more heavily may have lower targets. Don’t forget impact on milk quality.

Forage costs

  • Well-managed grazed grass and clover sward: 3.5p/litre
  • Poorer quality, older grazed pasture: 5.6p/litre
  • Good quality 1st cut grass silage: 6.1p/litre
  • Maize silage 6.8p/litre
  • 3rd cut grass silage 7.5p/litre
  • 18% high energy parlour concentrate 9.8p/litre

Richard Simpson will be speaking on maximising milk from forage at 12.30 each day in the main forum theatre (stand 301) at the Grassland & Muck Event (24-25 May). Tickets are now on sale and visitors can save £4 per adult ticket by purchasing in advance. For more information visit www.grasslandevent.co.uk.