Dairy farmers looking to manage the risks of forage gaps could find the increasing range of fodder crops playing a bigger role.
Producers should focus on spreading their risk and growing a wider range of forage and fodder options to counter increasingly variable growing conditions, believes Jim Juby of Horizon Seeds.
“Grassland and maize have remained the staple crops for milk producers in recent years and I don’t think this will change in the short-term,” he says. “But a year like this last one brings into sharp focus the limitations of such an approach.”
Many grass silage clamps are less than full due to a challenging season. Grazing has been poor in some regions since early May – and some farms will need to buy in forage for the winter months.
“There’s a growing consensus amongst weather researchers that the way climate change will manifest itself in the UK is in wetter winters and hotter summers with less rainfall so building more risk management into businesses is key,” says Mr Juby.
“Dairy or livestock business profitability will always be directly linked to how efficiently it produces and utilises its home-grown feed resources – and this is where building in greater use of alternative fodder crops could be beneficial.”
Turnip, rape, beet, forage rye, and arable silage mixtures could all become increasingly important in filling in forage gaps in poorer years and adding important protein and energy to rations in better ones, believes Mr Juby.
“Forage rye, for example, can provide very early grazing if grass growth is slow to pick-up following a cold winter with many producers using it to start grazing cows as early as February if ground conditions allow.”
Sown after maize is harvested, forage rye can provide good soil cover over the winter to minimise erosion. A vigorous variety such as Humbolt can produce a valuable early bite with spring growth three weeks earlier than Italian ryegrass.
“Grazing at 30-35cm is an ideal height for grazing dairy cows,” says Mr Juby. Another alternative is arable silage which as well as being an excellent break crop, can be undersown with a grass ley, he explains.
“A mixture of barley and peas work well together in the field, and are relatively easy to grow plus it will also fix nitrogen in the soil. Such a silage would be a valuable source of protein and if sown in March/April can be harvested just 14 weeks later.
“Crops such as stubble turnips and forage rape can also be ready for grazing in 12 weeks and produce protein levels of 17-19%. Samson and Frisia stubble turnips have both been proven performers on farm for the last few years.”
Similarly, spring-drilled root crops can provide valuable energy in the summer if grass is in short supply due to drought. Softer fodder beet varieties are ideal for dairy cows in the field and provide autumn and winter grazing, performing best on light or sandy fields.
Geronimo is a good example of a softer fodder beet that can be very easily eaten by dairy cows in the field. Greater use of such crops could provide a valuable lifeline for producers in the future as part of an overall risk management strategy.
“Farmers have to get away from the thinking that puts all their eggs in one basket and plan more to counter potentially bad weather, especially dry conditions, which can hammer not just your grazing but your ability to build forage stocks for the coming winter.
“Increased use of alternative fodder and forage crops is a great example of this thinking in action.”