Many factors have influenced milk production: genetics, better rationing and adoption of ever-advancing agricultural technology; however, there is no doubt that maximising the percentage of milk produced from forage is a sure way to improve business profitability and resilience. Grass and forage can be considered much more under your own control than the like of cereals and fertiliser which rely on a favourable global commodities market. It takes roughly 5.3MJ of energy to produce one lite of milk so by optimising the energy produced at home on the farm from grass (or other crops) you can reduce production costs and/or increase yields.
The UK is the world’s 13th largest milk producer, realising 15.3 billion litres of milk in the 2020*1. The average yield per cow of 8200 litres per lactation*2 and the UK herd is 1,856,000 cows*3. With the 10-year average farm gate milk price (2011-2020) sitting at 28.14ppl*4, this production is worth over £4.3 billion pounds to the UK farming economy.
The Kingshay Annual Dairy Costing Report 2020 shows the average yield from a typical Holstein/Friesian conventional herd to be 8384 litres with 2759 litres (32.9%) from forage, the top ten per cent of producers are only producing 55 litres more milk however almost 20% more, 4449 litres (52.7%) are produced from forage. These top 10% herds are spending £23/cow less on concentrate*5. The question should not just be how many litres can I produce, but how profitably can I produce all my litres? Another key thing to remember is that investing more into grass and forage production will likely increase the spending on this category of the Profit & Loss accounts, but this will lead to savings elsewhere.
The UK has a highly complex dairy farming sector with a great range of cows, systems and farmers influenced by a highly diverse geographical, topographical and climatic variance. No one system can fit all but good grass and soil management is both applicable and essential to all systems. Maximising milk from forage, whatever the system, can be summed up into two simple areas; firstly, you need to grow the right grass and secondly, that grass needs to get into the cow.
Condition Score your grass
In order to grow good grass, soils must be in optimal health. Aim for soil pH’s of at least pH6 or pH6.2 where clovers or other legumes are being utilised. Phosphorus (P) & potassium (K) indices should be at Index 2 (moderate) and Calcium (Ca) levels should be ideally over 2000parts per million (ppm). Soil sampling should be done every 3 – 5 years, and in England and Wales, this is already compulsory under the Water Framework Directive since 2018. Worryingly, recent soil sampling results still show only 9% of UK grasslands sampled are at target indices for P & K. Maintaining high pH and P&K levels allows crops to maximise Nitrogen utilisation, something particular vital in current times. These soil conditions also promote and support legumes.
Soils should also be kept in good physical health. Avoid compaction or address any existing issues to allow water and air movement, root development and micro-organisms to flourish. Good chemical and physical health are key to enhancing the biological health of soils, another fundamental to good forage production. Where shorter term crops are used, try to avoid leaving bare soils which can be prone to run-off, erosion and leaching.
When it comes to grass crops, where are you now? What crops grew well last year and what didn’t? Why? Do you monitor grass crops as frequently as any arable crops? Do you prioritise your reseeds to the same degree as your heifers? They are both the future of farm productivity. Getting a handle on where your current farm grassland and soil health and productivity is, is a priority. Our Barenbrug Good Grass Guide is an extremely useful tool to help you index your fields, a bit like condition scoring your cows. You can Download the Barenbrug Good Grass Guide here.
Next, look at what you want to achieve in the coming growing seasons in relation to grass and milk from forage? Our article on planning for future grass production may be useful: Grassland Planning Article
Soils are sorted, what now?
The right species will depend on the geographical area, soil and climate and the management system. Furthermore, there may be stewardship requirements and stipulations from the milk processor you have a contract with. The ryegrass (Lolium spp.) species is the most common species sold and sown in the UK. They range from Westerwold (annual) and Italian ryegrasses for very short term rotations to hybrid ryegrasses for medium term rotations and perennial ryegrasses for medium to long term rotations. Other useful such as timothy and soft leaved tall fescues may be complementary and beneficial. Modern varieties of these perennial species are high quality and bring a tolerance of wet and dry conditions respectively. Legumes such as red or white clover and lucerne are increasing in popularity as are catch crops such as forage rape to fill hungry gaps in the growing season. Some species and varieties within each species are better suited to multicut systems compared to more traditional practises. When you know what you want and need to achieve on the farm, discussing with your Barenbrug regional manager of Barenbrug distributor will help narrow down the wide range of choice on the market.
Growing the crop is where it starts to become more difficult because of the uncontrollable element of the weather but by matching the correct species to your system, soils and location can help improve the chances of high-quality grass.
For a grazing herd, keeping a keen eye on grass height is advisable. Rotational grazing gives improved grass utilisation – up to 85% compared with as little as 50% under set stocking – meaning more high-quality forage makes it into the cow. Leaving a residual of no less than 4cm or 1500kg DM/ha will allow grass to recover quickly and if a paddock gets more than ~3000kg DM/ha or 15cm tall, it should be removed from that round of grazing as it may be too proud for optimal utilisation and would be better cut and baled (or clamped if appropriate). The Barenbrug Sward stick is another useful tool to help with grazing management (LINK). Potential yields from grazing are normally lower than under silage but 10-12t DM/ha is achievable across most areas with some typically grass growing areas capable of more. It is also possible to achieve 11 or 12MJ/kg DM ME throughout the season with careful management.
There are 3 recognised practises for silage making, each with their own pros and limitations for growers:
Multicut systems where smaller cuts of silage are taken more frequently, generally 4 – 6 cuts. Although individual cuts are smaller and quicker to make, total annual yields can be equal to or higher than 2 or 3 cut systems. Silage season must start earlier in the year and is arguably, better suited to those with their own silage making kit, dry matter (DM) must be targeted at 28-32% and a longer chop length of 5cm for pit stability. High D value, Protein and metabolizable energy (ME) is expected from this system as grass is cut frequently before it matures and sets seed. D values are often mid 70’s, ME
Traditional silage making takes 2 or 3 cuts per year, each of which is larger in volume but potentially lower in D-value and protein than those from a multicut system because the grass is slightly more mature. This is not all bad though as the little extra fibre provide rumen stimulation, something which may need to be supplemented with low DM crops often associated with multicut. Target DM for a traditional system is 25-30% with a chop length of 2.5cm-5cm. There are normally 6 – 8 weeks between silage cuts meaning machinery costs are lower and working days are fewer although individual cuts will take longer to do.
Big bale silage is the most expensive way to make silage however it does bring about a level of flexibility as smaller areas can be easily ‘tidied up’ e.g. a mature paddock in a grazing platform. Bales of different nutritional value can also be targeted to different stock classes more easily than clamp silage. It is not the best option for large herds requiring large volumes of silage every day. One obvious drawback of bales is the plastic consumption and significant costs in procurement and disposal of that plastic. Big bale silage should be 35 -40%DM ideally which allows for easier stacking. Ideally move bales to the stack before wrapping, not the other way round to avoid interrupting fermentation process and prevent damage to the film, ideally wrap within 12hours of baling.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Dairy Market review April 2021. Dairy Market Review-April-2021 (fao.org)
- House of Commons UK Dairy Industry Statistics. September 2021. pdf (parliament.uk)
- AHDB UK and EU cow numbers. UK and EU cow numbers | AHDB
- AHDB annual milk prices for 2011 – 2020. ahdb.org.uk
- Kingshay Dairy Costing Focus. Annual report 2020.