Holistic approach to forage yields better margins
ADDING a specialist variety of grain maize into the cropping mix alongside lucerne and grass has allowed North Cornwall farmers Michael and Anthony Grills to consolidate and expand their dairy enterprise - even in the face of price adversity.
Like many farmers, continuing price pressure has encouraged Michael and Anthony to focus on increasing efficiency and cost-effectiveness over the past few years.
During this time, they have expanded their dairy business from 250 to 320 cows, with the eventual aim of reaching 500, and implemented major advances in genetics and nutrition, reduced costs, improved attention to detail and increased profitability.
Until 2009, cropping at West Trelay Farm in Marhamchurch, included 23-32 hectares (60-80 acres) of forage maize in the ration at the rate of one part maize to two parts grass silage.
“We found it difficult to achieve consistently good results from forage maize,” says Michael.
“Variability in the clamp made correct rationing difficult. Typical butterfat levels struggled to get to 4 per cent on the wheat and barley mix as a starch source, along with forage maize. As we are on a cheese contract, this proved costly.”
In early 2009, Simon Montgomery, from Nickerson Direct, suggested Michael and Anthony add grain maize to the cropping mix, using the forage maize as an additional energy source to supplement grass silage. The results were immediate.
The initial crop produced an average of 12t/ha (5t/acre)of grain, which was put into the clamp for £68/t, making it cost-effective.
“The maize fed tremendously well, with average butterfat content increasing from 3.98 per cent to a maximum of 4.54 per cent during the winter, and never dropping below 4.2 per cent the following summer, while protein remained at 3.18-3.21 per cent throughout,” says Michael.
“The resulting increase in the milk quality netted us a 1p/litre quality premium worth £25,000 per year.”
In 2010 they substituted the area of forage maize for grain maize. The crop established quickly in favourable conditions and grew consistently throughout the season, despite being subjected to severe drought stress.
Harvest was completed by October 17 and averaged yields of 11-12t/ha (4.5-5t/acre). This year, the area was increased further, with a number of fields now in their third year of grain maize.
“This year started off far drier than 2010 and the crop was planted on April 14 and 15 in ideal conditions,” says Mr Montgomery.
“What was startling on the light ground was how much moisture had been retained by the two previous years’ mulched stalks, allowing easy seed bed preparation and perfect planting conditions. This gave an even plant establishment, something others struggled with this year.”
The crop was ready to harvest by October 11, despite poor growing conditions this year, and combined at 10-12t/ha (4-5t/acre)at 30-34 per cent moisture.
“It was a wonderful product, like gold dust, although admittedly our location on relatively dry ground in North Cornwall favours the crop,” says Anthony.
“The fact it dries down quickly, right to the base of the kernel, enables us to put it through the crimper efficiently, producing a gritty, flour-type product, even though we are adding water with the acid-type preservative. This has increased surface area, making digestion easier.”
He says they are also getting better protein values from the maize as a result of using this method, and this has reduced the overall acid loading on the cows’ digestive system.
This year, lucerne was planted in one of the drier fields as an experiment, with first cut made in mid-July. It was left to wilt for four days, with one turn, before bring rowed up, chopped and baled.
“Chopping the lucerne as it was being baled resulted in very dense, tightly-packed bales, plus we used an additional layer of plastic to stop any ‘porcupine effect’.
“The resulting forage has surpassed expectations,” says Anthony, adding the second cut in early September has analysed equally well, yielding similarly at eight, 600kg bales per acre (around 20 bales/ha).
“The inclusion of 1.5 kg per cow of lucerne in the diet has raised protein levels from 3.18 to 3.35 per cent. It has also allowed 0.25kg per cow of soya to be removed from the ration, saving more than £900 per month.”
He says it has helped boost butterfat levels. Milk from forage is 4,500 litres from grazed grass and grass silage only, as the grain maize is treated as a concentrate.
The Grills say improvements in cow health are noticeable, bulling signs have improved and there is better holding post-AI.
Cull cows have reduced, calving index is improving and there is a surplus of heifers, providing another revenue stream.
The combination of crimped maize and lucerne in the diet has added an additional 1.5p/litre quality premium to the farm’s milk price and provides the basis for a more balanced diet, underpinned by good quality grass silage.
“The growing of grain maize at £70/t in the clamp, the improved milk price as a result of better quality milk and, the savings from inclusion of lucerne into the diet has stabilised the farm business,” says Anthony.
- Cow numbers grown from 250 to 320, with the aim of reaching 500.
- Until 2009, forage maize in the ration at the rate of one part maize to two parts grass silage.
- Grain maize added to ration, with first crop yields of 12t/ha (5t/acre)
- Lucerne trial run this year has brought savings in soya
- Milk from forage now 4,500 litres
- Changes have added 1.5p/litre quality premium to farm’s milk price