With limited raw materials available to organic producers, Andy King from Barrington Organic Partnership, Somerset ensures every mouthful fed to his organic herd is formulated to provide an optimum balance of nutrition.
Andy, as well as managing the Coombe Farm Organic Milk Pool for the AH Warren Trust, runs an organic dairy farm with his wife Rosemary on a Farm Business Tenancy. Together with Farm Manager Richard Coombes and Herdsman Barry Chick the team are focused on feeding a diet to their 240 all year round calving herd that meets the organic requirement of achieving a minimum of 60% daily dry matter intake from forage whilst ensuring yield and cow health are the best that they can be. This means paying careful attention at silage-making time, to make very palatable silage with high intake potential.
With 210 cows in milk at any one time, Andy expects to achieve an average of 25 litres/cow/day throughout the year. To achieve this in an organic system requires meticulous planning and here Andy combines his own background in dairy nutrition with all the tools available to him to formulate rations that meet his needs. These tools were put to the test though in winter 2016, when the forage he was feeding didn't perform as well as the previous year. As Andy explains:
"We run all the milking cows as one group and feed a partial mixed ration down the barrier made up of roughly 75% grass silage, 20% whole crop, 5% fodder beet, a small amount of concentrate and sometimes yeast. We look to achieve maintenance plus 20 litres from this and then feed an 18% dairy compound in the parlour for 20-32 litres. We then feed a 16% dairy compound through out of parlour feeders for those cows achieving 32-40 litres. By spreading the feed throughout the day, we lower the potential for acid loading and try to ensure the main partial mixed ration is as balanced as possible.
"We tend to have a maximum crude protein (CP) level of around 16% in the overall diet compared to the industry average of 18%. We also try and grow as much of the protein on farm ie. clover/grass mixes. In winter 2015-16 we actually averaged 15.5% CP and the cows milked well. This winter, though, cows were eating the same amount of silage but milk levels were dropping below 23 litres/cow/day. So, once fodder beet was ready to use in December 2016 and we knew we had a good three months of consistent feed ahead of us, I sat down and looked at how we could improve the diet."
Andy uses a range of tools to monitor feed performance including: regular Dry NIR silage analysis using ForFarmers SilageManager+, the NMR Energy Balance service (that monitors a cow's energy status through its milk profile), the ForFarmers Visiolac service (milk fatty acid analysis which indicates rumen performance and nutrient utilisation) and also by measuring silage intakes.
"By analysing all the results together you can make judgements on what the cows are doing and how they are performing," explains Andy. "This year the grass silage analysis showed higher levels of ADL (Acid Detergent Lignin) and NDF (Neutral Detergent Fibre) which suggested that, even though the small amount of silage was being eaten, perhaps it wasn't as digestible. The new Dry NIR analysis, SilageManager+, also highlighted other issues with the silage, most importantly low MELK (a new measure for milk yield potential) and low TDP (True Digestible Protein - protein that can be utillised by the cow for milk production). This was very different to previous standard forage analysis reports. Without as much quality protein available, we needed to find a better source from the limited organic raw materials available to us as well as additional energy.
"The thinking was that if we could boost the energy in the concentrate to such a level that also allowed us to reduce the amount of blend fed by 0.5 kilo, we could feed the same amount of total energy in a smaller package, stimulating appetite, and allowing room for the cows to eat another half a kilo of forage. "Furthermore, any energy sources within this 'boost' needs to ensure the rumen is not hit with rapidly fermentable energy that will lower the rumen pH and compromise rumen fermentation - overall a big ask!"
In discussion with his ForFarmers account manager, a new blend was developed to raise intakes of glucogenic energy and TDP. These decisions were based on silage nutrient shortfalls identified by SilageManager. This was assessed using DietPlan (Feed2Milk), the company's feed programme that helps predict the likely outcome of dietary changes.
The new diet was started on the 2nd January and Andy was delighted yields quickly increased to 25 litres and now stand at an average of 26.2 litres (mid-March). This means an extra 2 litres/cow/day has been achieved from delivering the right nutrients and nearly the same again from increased forage intakes.
"What's more, fertility is unchanged as a result of hitting these higher yields which is always a concern," says Andy. "The PD test this week showed unchanged results between cows served before and cows served after the new ration was established."
"I think you need confidence in your silage analysis and confidence in the numbers in your ration programme. Only then can you make diet decisions and believe what it says on the computer will actually translate to the tank.
It is a testament to Richard and the team on the farm to keep an eye on what the cows are telling us about the diet. It is very motivational to watch things go to plan and cow's milk to where we know they can compared to accepting reduced performance and with that lower returns.
"Next year will be completely different but we'll take the same approach and formulate accordingly - when we turn out we will again approach feeding with the same principles. For me, data and information really is key to making sound nutritional decisions," Andy concludes.
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