Livestock farmers will be looking for an early spring and early grass growth next year to help eke out scarce winter feed supplies following this year’s disastrous summer and autumn.
Silage on many beef and dairy farms is in short supply, and of poor quality in terms of energy and dry matter, and farmers will be anxiously trying to work out if available forage will last until spring or if alternative feeds will be required to add to what is already a costly winter.
With this in mind, NFU Scotland has called in two experts, Basil Lowman of SAC and Tom Goatman of DairyCo, to provide timely advice to help farmers plan ahead for the rest of the winter.
“One of the biggest factors determining whether farmers have enough feed this winter will be how early the spring is,” Lowman points out. “The quicker the grass starts growing, the quicker fields will start drying up and stock can be turned out.”
However, for most farms there is probably a six-week range in date of turnout which is dictated by the weather and ground conditions and makes winter feed requirements notoriously difficult to estimate accurately.
The number of days winter feed is required from 10 January if turnout is achieved on 15 March is 64 but if conditions delay turnout to 15 April, this increases the number of days to 94 and to 125 days if turnout is delayed until 15 May.
Lowman advises beef farmers to turn cattle out on to grass at a low stocking rates as soon as ground conditions allow. He suggests early turnout can be achieved by using all grass for grazing initially and delay shutting up grass for first cut silage until all animals have been turned out.
High quality spring grass will, he says, support the liveweight gains of store cattle even at grass heights of 4-5cm.
He also makes the point that supporting finishing animals with more concentrate feeding will increase growth rates, reduce days to slaughter and significantly reduce overall forage requirements. “Farmers should sell finished animals as soon as they reach the minimum fat class required by the market and spring calving cows which prove barren should be culled immediately,” he advises.
Farmers lucky enough to have high-quality silage could, he adds, replace up to 10 per cent of silage dry matter with long straw without incurring any noticeable drop in performance.
The main message from Goatman is the need for careful planning and while his advice is directed at dairy farmers, it is just as relevant to other livestock farmers.
“The summer has been difficult, feed costs this winter are high and motivation can seem difficult,” he says. “Farmers who are unsure about how they will feed their stock over the winter, should take steps now and seek trusted expert advice.”
Regular sampling and analysis of silage to assess feed value is absolutely vital and a weekly check of the quantity of silage left in the pit is advised to avoid surprises later in the season.
“Now is the time for farmers to assess exactly how much silage is left in the pit and how much will be required for the rest of the winter,” says Goatman. “Dry matter content is low so they there may not be as much as farmers think. However well stocks and requirements are calculated, there can still be mistakes and changing circumstances.
“With a good knowledge of quality and quantity, it is easier to take steps to manage the winter. There are options – although most will add cost – but if farmers are proactive, then forward planning can be helpful and ease the anxiety now and in the spring.”
He stresses that the quality of ration fed to high performance cattle, such as early lactation and dry dairy cows, should not be compromised but that the diet of cows in later lactation can be adjusted provided they are in good condition.
If overall reserves of feed are low, the choice is to buy in suitable alternatives or reduce stock numbers by culling less productive animals.