Exploiting grass to cut feed costs

Major cost savings can be made by moving from a three cut to five cut silage strategy.

Exploiting grass to cut feed costs

Cutting grass every six weeks is not best practice in terms of either yield or quality - for years more frequent cutting has been perceived as more expensive in terms of contracting and harvesting costs, as well as lower yield per cut suggested Advanced Nutrition’s Rob Watkins at the recent LKL National Herdsman’s Conference at Harper Adams University. “However, cutting at approximately monthly intervals and introducing better management will enable you to achieve more, higher quality silage and in turn you will be able to reduce the concentrate bill”.

“Remember one of your underlying objectives should be to take more milk from forage, the most cost effective form of feed. Kingshay costings show the average 8,000 litre herd is achieving just 18% from forage when in fact 30% to 35% is an appropriate and achievable target,” he suggested.

“True, more frequent cuts will result in less kg DM/acre harvested per cut and unsurprisingly, more expensive forage in terms of total cost. Making five cuts virtually doubles the cost of slurry, fertiliser and foraging. However you have to review the bottom line.

“Taking five cuts significantly increases yield and the potential concentrate savings becomes crucially greater. For example, a 0.8 MJ/Kg DM increase in energy over five cuts on 100 acres versus three cuts over the same area can be achieved, resulting in a financial benefit of £17,348, even when taking the additional costs into consideration.” (See table).

3vs5 cut silage

“We often allocate the area to cut without sitting down and calculating how much we will require for the winter in terms of stock numbers, quantity per head and quality. You need to establish those parameters and then set targets for cutting dates, tonnage and quality to be harvested for the rest of this season.

“Plans with targets certainly focus the mind,” he said. “If you’re aiming at taking 35% of yield from forage, then you can calculate the required quality and amount of dry matter per head.
“Then carefully look at factors that will affect those targets such as percentage lameness incidences and fertility. I often see farmers going for more milk from forage the easy way, especially in times of low milk price, by cutting the percentage of concentrate fed when this decision more often than not runs in conjunction with high lameness and fertility issues resulting in falling yields, declining fertility and higher vet costs.”

So precisely when do we cut? “The plant will tell us,” he explained. “Each ryegrass plant is able to support just three emerged leaves. As soon number four emerges then one will die thereby lowering the plant’s energy levels. Cutting is really no different to setting grazing covers which are farm dependant to a point of between 2,700kg and 2,900kg DM/ha and residuals to 1,650kg DM/ha.

“If we cut too late or in fact too short, the sward will take longer to recover. If, however we leave a couple of growing points on modern cultivars, we can be back in with the mower in 28 to 30 days. In years gone by with slower responding cultivars, bulk was king, so six weeks between the magic first cut and subsequent cuts should now be confined to history,” advised Mr Watkins.

“Getting contractors on board can, at times, be challenging. However agreeing a plan and making sure they understand that early in the season is key. Confirm target chop length, how you want the cut ensiled, which additive, and both your quality and DM targets.

“Remember your business depends on MJ per hectare harvested while theirs is focused on ha/hour harvested, consequently they’ll benefit from the extra cuts. Remind them and share the results with them when you reach your targets. If they work with you, then stick to that contractor, otherwise consider a change.”

British Dairying, May 2017


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