Increasing milk from forage to drive profitability

Grazing quality grass, making better silage and a return to a simpler feeding system has helped push milk from forage to 5,000 litres for 380 Holstein Friesians in Leicestershire.

The herd, based at Honeypot Farm, one of our strategic dairy farms, switched from a TMR with buffer feeding, to grazing for seven months of the year and delivering silage through a forage box, with a return feeding cake in the parlour.

As a result of improving production from home-grown forage, George Wade – together with his dad, Martin and brother, Ben – has cut concentrate costs and vastly improved the bottom line. “Before, our concentrate feed rate was 0.3kg/litre (including brewers grains, citrus pulp and bread) plus silage. Now, we only feed 55kg of forage plus 7kg of cake (feed rate of 0.21kg/litre) and cows are currently averaging 33 litres/cow/day,” he says.

“We are trying to run the cheapest system as a forage-based one. Yield has dropped to 8,000 litres at 4.3% fat and 3.6% protein, but our concentrate costs that were at 7ppl are now 4.5ppl and we’re no longer buying in any bulk feed just a 28% protein dairy nut (which drops to 14% in spring).”

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Eight years ago, when the herd was calving all year round and heading for a 10,000 litre average, the setup fed concentrates in the TMR: “So we weren’t utilising grazed grass much and high yielders were in most of the time,” adds George. “We used to have to buy a lot of bulk feed as we lacked acreage, yet this isn’t classed as forage. We had started paddock grazing, although cows were kind of rotationally set stocking 2ha paddocks and grazing them over a couple of days – and we were buffer feeding.

At the time, their Key Performance Indicator of milk from forage was just 2,000 litres. Joining a discussion group, however, the Wades learned that they weren’t as profitable as other farmers, plus, they had a complicated system requiring a lot of hard work. This set the family down the path of rotational grazing and a switch to autumn-block calving in just 12 weeks.

Transition to block calving and infrastructure investment

As part of their changes, a parlour revamp four years ago extended the 20/40 to 30/60 and installed new feeders. This step allowed cows to be turned out day and night with all concentrates fed at milking. And as the herd progressed towards block calving, George says the grazing season lengthened to seven months from February to October, repaying a £30,000 investment in infrastructure such as tracks, troughs and fencing: “We perfected it and grazed paddocks at the right length and hammered residuals,” he explains. “As we took on more land, we grew more of our own forage. Going down the grazing route meant we got rid of the arable rotation and our farm is all down to maize or grass now.”

To improve sward quality for both grazing and ensiling, the farm introduced a five-year reseeding policy, selecting top quality leys and sowing Italian Ryegrasses in silage fields. Further recent investment has included £40,000 spent on a second new, regulation-compliant maize clamp. In addition, there are two grass clamps: one for each cut; any third cut is baled for youngstock, or dry cows. Surplus on the 98ha grazing platform is clamped alongside first cut in early May, but baled later on. Milkers get first cut silage with second cut destined for heifers or, when necessary, late lactation cows. The aim is to feed a consistent winter ration without hitting milk yield when switching between clamps.

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“Growing all our own grass we can control silage quality. We buy in extra maize as it’s more consistent and we can use it to fill any feed gaps in a drought, or carry over to another year,” says George. To further improve silage quality, cutting date for first cut was brought forward by two weeks to the 6th of May. “We try to take second cut before it heads in June and we bought our own tedder as we want 28-30% DM silage. We are in control of that,” he explains. As a dairy business based around good forage, George is conscious of the balance between the cost of having all the kit and having control over fermentation and quality. That’s why they employ a contractor, only having their own mower and tedder for flexibility. A friend with an all-in-one baler wrapper is happy to bale small areas on the platform when needed, which helps maintain the rotation.

To get good consolidation, in addition to the contractor’s buckrake, George makes sure he is always on the clamp rolling: “For me, rolling all day is the most important thing. We have 20t loads coming in and one man can’t keep up with it. Yes it’s boring but it’s worth it when you get nice silage,” he says. “We sheet up with one layer of cling film, one black sheet, one woven sheet then tyres and some sandbags. We are slowly switching over to lorry side wall tyres.”

Silage quality and feeding approach

The result this year was 11.7 ME silage at 29% DM, 15% CP and 48% NDF. George has toyed with the idea of going a step further and cutting every 4–6 weeks, though he is cautious about starting before May. If fertiliser isn’t used up by the grass plant, the leaf could be still high in nitrogen.  “Silage fields that have been reseeded with IRG have 4-5 cuts and are always a week earlier than our other fields,” he adds.

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At feeding out, a block cutter is used to leave a neat and tight face to avoid spoilage. Salt has been tried this year on the edges of the maize. Silage is fed in a ratio of 60% maize to 40% grass through the forage box. Unless there is a radical change in analysis, the same diet is used every winter with concentrates flat-rate fed at a maximum of 3.5kg/head at each milking.

Layers of silage are weighed into the forage box, starting with maize. There is no mixing, yet George finds the silages come out together: “It mixes better than you think. Cows can sort it – they tend to eat the grass first – but it’s mostly gone at the end of the day. We feed in a central passage and push up four times a day, with refusals scraped out daily and put on the muck heap.”

George isn’t tempted to return to a mixer wagon to get a more blended diet, because he is convinced that the switch to a forage box boosted milk from forage, and it now fits with their simple approach. “We have dropped feed costs by 3ppl which is worth £30,000 on a million litres and we ship three million, so every penny counts. We were feeding 2.0 tonnes/cow/year and now it is 1.6t/cow/year. We can get this lower, though I don’t want to drop output below 8,000 litres/cow. We’re keeping it simple and we’re more profitable now than we’ve ever been.”