Expanding grazing platform for feed security

Friday, 7 October 2022

Expanding the grazing platform for business growth is a full budgeting exercise. But following a challenging drought, it is worth feed budgeting for different options for forage security.

For example, budgeting for increasing the grazing platform for the same cow numbers or creating a milking platform by adding outlying blocks for dry cows, heifers, or silage-making.

While it gives more land for cattle to range over, taking on extra land for securing feed supplies needs a realistic assessment. Consultant Ian Browne of FCG asks, ‘’Is the pasture quality capable of reducing purchased forage or concentrate inputs? Effectively, adding acreage to a platform alters the food supply. However, there are too many variables to make an off-the-cuff calculation of the cost-benefit”.  

A further complication is that future environmental rules could require lower stocking rates, which would completely change the economics of grazing expansion. This is why he recommends a full feed budget: “See what the extra land is going to produce and the impact it will have on feed costs if you aren’t increasing the herd. You should be aiming to reduce some purchased feed. Factor into a partial budget the amount of feed saved versus the additional cost of growing the forage, extra infrastructure, and the impact on milk production, plus income. For a big block of land, do a full budget”, he says.

Ian believes it’s important to be realistic about any new land’s production capacity. A short-term arable joint venture offers a flexible alternative for silage leys where the landowner benefits from deep-rooting crops and organic matter But you can’t spend too long trying to improve grazing land that you could lose without seeing a return: “If land has been arable, or really rough grass, then the cost of knocking it into shape to get it to good grazing potential is quite expensive, and it won’t carry a full stocking rate for at least 2–4 years. Whereas good grassland will carry 3.0–3.5 grazing cows/ha, former arable land will struggle to stock 2.0+ cows/ha at the start.”

As a rough guide, Ian calculates costs at £850–1,000/ha to include rent, fertiliser and reseeding, plus some grazing infrastructure to make a ‘useful hectare’ out of additional land. This equates to a grazing cow cost of around £250–350/cow. You can potentially gain up to £1,200–1,400/ha for every hectare added to a platform in feed savings.

A final point to consider, he adds, is that buying extra acres for food security doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of shortage because it won’t produce any more grass in a drought. Rather, it can help boost first-cut silage yields followed by either a potential second cut or grazing: “Acreage needs to be secured in time to benefit from grass growth in the first half of the year and autumn”.

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