Lowering your purchased feed costs this winter

Friday, 20 November 2020

Reducing intervals between silage cuts has helped strategic dairy farmers, Tony and Michael Ball, improve their milk from forage and reduce feed costs.

The brothers manage a year-round calving herd at Coton Wood Farm just outside of Ashbourne, in Derbyshire. Five years ago, they invested heavily in an eight-strong Lely robotic milking system for a better work life balance, improved efficiency and to reduce their dependence on staff.

Their 500-head herd averages 9,900 litres and are split into three groups with two different feed schedules. Fresh cows and high yielders are fed a mix of TMR/cut and carry, and the low yielders graze in the summer with a TMR buffer in the evenings. Michael and Tony achieve an impressive 7.3ppl as their purchased feed cost, putting them in the top 5% of GB herds.

Learn more about KPIs for all year round calvers

Whilst they have always worked to lower feed costs, their biggest gains have come from improving milk from forage. They are currently achieving 3,000 litres from forage, an impressive increase of 1,200 litres since joining the strategic dairy farm programme two and a half years ago.

So, what is the secret of their success in this area? Michael explained:

“I suppose it is being more confident in taking the concentrates off the cows. In the past we were maybe feeding more concentrate and not seeing the results. Reducing cutting intervals with the aim of improving silage quality has helped drive more milk from forage."

The high yielders’ ration is composed of one-third straights which they try to purchase on spot. However, soya is on a 12-month contract as of last month. For the remainder, the fresh and high groups receive an M+27 ration outside and an average of 5.5kg of compound through the robots.

Michael says:

“I try to keep a close eye on the market and maintain a good relationship with suppliers.”

While they have one dedicated merchant, they occasionally test the market and run comparisons to ensure they achieve the best price for their feed.

Five years ago, they began cut and carry “to get more output from each hectare of grass, be less reliant on the weather and make best use of the forage, by keeping residuals low,” explains Michael. Cut and carry enables access to ground at the other side of the road that would not be accessible for grazing cows.

Cut and carry begins in mid-March and ends at the end of September or early October. They will continue to assess the merit of this approach as the cut and carry machine will need replacing in the not too distant future.

The low yielders, which have around 160 in the group at any one time, are turned out at the end of March until the end of October. This is dependent on grass growth as the ground at Coton Wood is very light and carries well to later in the year. They come in at night and are fed a buffer ration of M+13.

As the highs reduce robot visits in late lactation and production falls, they are moved into the low group. However, Michael added:

“Since starting with the robots, milk yield holds better as they will visit the robots looking for more in the trough.”

Coton Wood has a structured approach to feeding with the highs receiving TMR first thing in the morning shortly followed by one load of cut and carry. The split between TMR and cut and carry is 4kg DM of grass, 8kg DM forage and 6kg DM premix straights.

The straights are made up of soya, wheat distillers, sugar beet, rolled wheat and molasses. A standard farm mineral pack is also added to the ration. The nut, fed throughout the year in the robots, is a 16% high digestible fibre. Apart from introducing cut and carry, the Balls have always taken this approach to feeding.

Michael and Tony want to focus on getting the basics to as high a standard as possible, working on the principle that everything will fall in to place from there.

Their advice to anyone struggling with rising feeds costs would be to start with looking how you can improve your milk from forage. Keep it simple and have a good knowledge and understanding yourself so you can challenge your nutritionist to get the best value from their expertise.

Explore the stories and learning from other experienced farmers

Michael and Tony Balls advice for reducing feed costs

  • Try to improve milk from forage as a way of reducing costs
  • Keep a close eye on the straights market and run comparisons to achieve the best price
  • Build up your knowledge to get improve value from your nutritionist
  • Keep it simple and focus on the basics

Purchase Feed Costs KPI Fact File

  • Feed and forage are the biggest cost on UK dairy farms accounting for 33% (9.5 ppl) of total production cost
  • Maximising the use of home-grown forage and reducing the cost of feed and forage on-farm continues to be the largest driver for increasing farm profitability. The purchased feed costs KPI combines the straights, concentrates, moist feeds, and co products costs and divides by total milk produced
  • It varies considerably depending on dairy system but can be compared within similar systems and monitored on a monthly or annual basis
  • Low feed costs can indicate a higher proportion of production is from forage, particularly when forage is of high quality
  • This KPI depends not only on the amount of feed the cows eat, but also its price

KPI ranges of the purchased feed cost KPI 

Total Purchased Feed Costs PPL ExcellentGoodAverage


8,000l - 7ppl

8,000l - 7.5ppl

8,000l - 8ppl


10,000l - 7.8ppl

10,000l - 8.5ppl

10,000l - 9ppl


12,000l - 8ppl

12,000l - 8.5ppl

12,000l – 9.5ppl

Cut and carry

Siwan Howatson, AHDB grazing specialist said:

“Interest in cut and carry systems has increased considerably over recent years, with many farmers either using it during the shoulders of the season or throughout the grazing season.

“The key drivers for adopting this technology are to increase the proportion of fresh grass included in the diet and as a management tool for fragmented grazing land, wetter summers, expanding herd sizes and, in some cases, robotic milking systems.”

Key benefits:

  • Improvement in grassland productivity, with up to 25% increase in grass growth rates and 15% improvement in grass utilisation when compared with grazing
  • Increased stocking rates are possible, which reduces the total area needed for grazing
  • On wetter farms, more flexibility of the grazing platform and the potential to offer fresh grass earlier and later in the season compared with grazing
  • Extension of the grazing platform to fields which are difficult for cows to access
  • Easier to achieve constant grass residuals to maintain grass quality throughout the season
  • Potential reduction in damage to grass if appropriate machinery and practices are used in correct weather conditions and the avoidance of poaching and rejection sites in pasture
  • Avoids opening silage/changing diet when cows require sporadic summer housing and improves cow performance in comparison with grass silage
  • Ability to buffer-feed high-yielding cows with grass silage

Learn more about grass and forage management

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