Home-grown forage fuels sustainable system

Focusing on maximising milk produced from forage and breeding cows to suit its low-cost, block-calved system are key to the success of one Wales-based dairy business.

Dairy Nutrition
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Close grazing management, taking early silage cuts and a consistent re-seeding policy have all helped one Ceredigion-based producer sustainably increase milk yields. Producing as much home-grown feed as possible for their herd has always been a goal for Alun Edwards and his parents, Gareth and Mair. As well as grass silage, the family grows wheat and barley on their 120-hectare Wales-based unit, and this forms the bulk of the herd’s ration with minimal use of concentrates.

This focus on home-grown forage has helped to push the 130-cow autumn-calving herd’s average yield up by 200 litres to 6,300 litres, with 3,600 litres now coming from forage. These improvements have been achieved while simultaneously reducing concentrate use by 11% per cow and maintaining milk constituents at 4.42% butterfat and 3.41% protein.

“We’ve always tried to grow as much feed as possible on the unit,” explains Alun. “As well as grass for silaging and grazing, we grow six hectares of winter wheat for wholecrop and 14 hectares of spring barley. All is fed to cows and our 115-head of youngstock.

Forage maize

“We are also going to grow maize here for the first time this year. By adding home-grown starch to rations and increasing dry-matter intakes due to feeding mixed forages, we hope to increase milk from forage and milk solids.”

The only bought-in feed is a 21% protein ForFarmers blend, and everything is mixed and fed as a TMR. When the cows are being dried off, they’re also fed a small amount of blend.

The most significant and recent change on the dairy unit has been to take the first cut for silage earlier in the season. Alun takes three cuts of silage each year, but now aims to have first cut in the clamp before May 1.

All cuts of grass silage are treated with Ecosyl silage additive, which has been used on the unit for many years to help reduce dry-matter losses, heating and waste. This helps to improve silage quality and boost milk-from-forage yields.

“The unit is also managed on a 10-year plan, with every field being reseeded every 10 years,” says Alun. “This way we aim to do a little reseeding each year, and our focus is on mid-to-long-term perennial ryegrass. We have used clover in the past, but not recently. But we will start adding clover back into our leys as we look to increase protein levels in silage.”

The herd predominately comprises Friesians and Friesian crosses, plus some Jersey and Norwegian Reds. Alun believes that the mixture of breeds and crossbreeds suits their system well, with the cross-breeding producing cows with hybrid vigour and hardiness.

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Grazing gains

Cows are turned out during the day from February and are then outside full-time from mid-March onwards, only coming in when calving begins in late September. “It’s a dry unit here and we can get away with cows being out early and it suits us,” says Alun. “The way our paddocks are set up means we can bring cows in one way and out another, which makes paddock management more straightforward.”

The grazing platform is mostly in one block with just a few extra off-lying areas of silage ground, and comprises multiple grazing paddocks that are all roughly one hectare in size. The time that cows spend in each paddock is weather dependent.

“As well as grazing, cows are buffer fed silage until May or June, so we can often get two 12-hour periods on each paddock compared to early February when they would get just 12 hours in each paddock and move between paddocks more quickly,” explains Alun.

He also measures the grass growth weekly from turnout until June. “If a paddock goes above 3,000kg of dry matter per hectare then we could take a cut for silage. It can be a bit of a pain if it’s only four or five bales worth, but we have our own baler, so it is possible. “If we don’t do that, the grass goes to head and the quality of the grazing and silage goes down.”

The herd calves between September and January, but the aim is to have all calving finished by Christmas. Genus technicians are assisting with heat detection to help tighten the calving block. The same ration is also fed across the herd, ensuring that all cows are in the same lactation phase to help improve feed efficiency.

Ration formulation

ForFarmers’ James Wilyman also plays a key supporting role to help the herd achieve higher levels of milk from forage. “All our costings are done through James,” says Alun. “He analyses the silage and formulates the winter ration, and he helps if something isn’t quite right, coming up with a plan that will help to sort things out.”

The herd is milked twice a day through an 18:36 rapid-exit parlour, which Alun feels is a bit too big for the number of cows on the unit. But bTB has made it difficult to maintain a consistent herd size, as well as plan cow numbers accurately for the future.

“We had intended to expand the herd, but bTB keeps scuppering our plans and the disease has had a significant impact on the business,” he says. “It is difficult to plan what we do in two years’ time as we don’t know how many cows we will have left in the herd. Without the threat of bTB, we’d be in a much better place.

”So our focus will remain on the areas of the herd and dairy business that we can control, particularly producing high-quality forages and working closely with our nutritionist to optimise rations and herd performance.”

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