Wholecrop silage offers herd-health benefits

Moving from maize to wholecrop silage has improved herd health on one Staffordshire-based unit, as well as offering a host of other business benefits. So what mixture do they grow and how?

Dairy Nutrition
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In a drive to improve the yield and quality of homegrown forages and reduce its reliance on bought-in feed, the Farrington family has reviewed cropping plans at its dairy and arable unit, based near Rugeley in Staffordshire.

Trading as T Farrington & Sons, brothers Carl and Martin work alongside their father Roy and three uncles Edwin, Ken and Michael. Martin’s wife Samantha is also a key part of the team, assisting with the weekly vet visits and with AI and breeding. Both Carl and Martin have children currently studying at agricultural college who are keen to eventually become the fourth generation to run the business.

With 365 hectares across three farms, the family produce around 160 hectares of arable crops, some of which is sold and the remainder forms part of the dairy herd’s ration.

Home-grown feed

The herd comprises 300 milkers, predominantly Holstein with some Dairy Shorthorn, plus 260 youngstock. So there are plenty of cattle to feed.

Meeting as much of the unit’s requirements with home-grown forage as possible is a priority to improve business sustainability. The unit rolls its own barley and wheat to create a blend, with added bought-in rapemeal. Concentrate is bought in for parlour feeding.

To increase grass silage quality and yields, Carl has been overseeding with ForFarmers’ TOPGRASS Protogen. This mixture includes 20% red clovers alongside hybrid ryegrasses, and ryegrass PLUS grasses for stress tolerance. “We wanted to include clover for its nitrogen-fixing qualities, as well as the extra protein it offered,” he says. “Our fertiliser use has halved since we began introducing clover to grass leys.”

In 2018 the family decided to change the unit’s silagemaking regime. “At that point we were producing maize silage, as we had for the previous 20 years, but we decided to halve the area we were growing and switched to wholecrop oats, peas and vetch,” says Carl.

“This was a success so we took maize out of the rotation altogether the following year and, in 2022, we moved fully to growing a barley, pea and vetch mix. We undersow this crop with grass to increase ground cover, which also meant being able to cut it for grass silage later in the season.”

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Field work

Growing wholecrop silage, undersown with grass, only required the field to be ‘worked’ once before drilling both the arable crop and the grass, and ground cover is also improved.

The reduced field work from the arable option – and subsequent reduction in fuel use, as well as wear and tear on the tractor and cultivation equipment – appealed to the family. “We drill the crops in mid-April and the wholecrop is ready for cutting by mid-July. This is followed by a small fertiliser application and we then take a cut of grass silage six weeks later,” explains Carl.

He adds that, from both financial and cow health perspectives, the benefits of growing and feeding wholecrop have been significant. “Wholecrop quality is good and offers the cows a top-quality fibrous forage. We had trouble with mycotoxins in our maize silage in the past, which led to somatic cell counts being much higher than desired at an average 220,000 cells/ml. We really struggled to keep them down,” says Carl. “Since moving to wholecrop silage, somatic cell counts now average 70,000 cells/ml.”

Cow health improvements, alongside investing in cow collars, have also contributed to better herd fertility. “Our calving interval has fallen from more than 400 days to 380 days.”

Average milk yield for the all-year-round calving herd has also improved, increasing from 8,000 litres to 8,500 litres, at 3.30% protein and 4.20% butterfat, and production continues to rise.

Successful establishment of the wholecrop does depend on spring weather conditions. “If it’s extremely dry this can delay pea germination, compared to the barley and vetch, but it still performs just as well.”

And he says that the mixed crop’s earlier harvest mitigates much of that concern. “I like that we can get it off earlier than a maize crop – we don’t have to wait until autumn and run the risk of poor weather,” says Carl.

Slurry applications

“Many producers struggled to harvest maize in 2023, when we had already got our wholecrop into the pit. We have no concerns about harvesting in less-than ideal conditions and the risk of damage to fields. There’s also time for a slurry application in August, before the NVZ restrictions come into play.”

Looking ahead, Carl and the family team will continue to push for improvements. “Increasing milk from forage and reducing the amount of bought-in inputs is a long-term goal to make the farm more sustainable and profitable,” he says. “And to achieve that we will need to keep working on improving our soil health and making the best quality forage we can to benefit the herd and our business.”

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