Feed and bedding cost
Just because there is plenty of silage in the yard this year does not make it a cheap indoor winter feed. Add to this the cost of bedding and it amounts to £1.60/cow/day indoors. Using a forage crop to shorten the number of days indoors will reduce feed costs and eliminate the cost of bedding. Last year, the Duguids at North Cranna kept dry cows out until the end of January on a hybrid brassica crop at a daily feed cost of £1.01/cow/day. This is a saving of £0.59/day compared with the housed cattle. This meant that over a 90-day period they saved £53/cow over feed and bedding alone.
Labour and fuel
A well thought out outwintering setup will reduce the overall labour input required when compared with cows wintered indoors. Simply moving an electric fence every 24, or even 48, hours and ensuring there is a constant fibre source is the only feeding required in this system. Again looking at the Duguids’ figures from last year, they managed to use almost 4,500l less diesel due to fewer numbers of cows being fed with the diet feeder. At £0.60/l, that’s a saving of £2,700, or over £35/cow outwintered.
Obviously not all animals will be suited to an outwintering system. Older or thinner cows should be housed for the winter to avoid any issues during the wintering period. This is why having cows in good condition coming into the winter period is so important if outwintering is to be successful.
The number of farmers that outwintered cows last year was much greater than in recent years – due mainly to a shortage of silage stocks as a result of the drought last summer. Speaking to numerous farmers this spring, one comment kept creeping up – that cows that were outwintered were fitter due to having more exercise and there were fewer calving issues.
While it is hard to measure the financial benefit of this, it is clear to see that fewer problems can only be a positive for both farmer and beast.
Fresh air is the best sickness prevention. Cattle are more content and healthy out-doors, in their natural environment. In some instances, we have overcomplicated the system by incorporating a long in-door period for cattle.
Infections and bugs thrive in warm, moist environments – often provided by sheds. Where animals are sharing the same airspace they are naturally at higher risk of disease.
While not all farms are suited to outwintering due to location or land type, there are many farms that can successfully do so for at least some part of the winter. As long as cattle have a dry lie-back area and have some form of shelter (trees/hedges) there should be no adverse health issues.
Another added benefit of outwintering is the elimination of dung-spreading costs. The cows will do this for you throughout the winter without sending you an invoice for it in early spring. This is a massive labour and machinery cost-saving. There is a lot of work in loading, carting, reloading and spreading dung each year. Often this is done in the nearest fields to the steading to reduce the amount of carting required. Outwintering allows you to apply dung to whatever field that requires it – with no haulage costs.
Reduced fertiliser input
A further benefit of outwintering is the fact that fertiliser application rates of the following crop can be significantly reduced. Depending on the soil fertility status of the field, this can see a reduction in nitrogen application in the region of 15kg-20kg/ha.
Using forage crops for winter grazing is a great way of renewing old pasture and bringing it into a reseeding rotation. Older, poorer-performing swards can be targeted for sowing with a forage crop in the coming weeks, grazed through the winter and reseeded back to grass in spring.
It provides the perfect opportunity to address soil nutrient deficiencies, correct pH and have it ready to be sown to grass in spring time. This will boost the annual herbage yield of the field both this year and the coming years with a new grass ley.
Increase soil OM levels
Sowing forage crops for winter grazing in an arable setting can help boost soil organic matter (OM) levels. This is the situation with the Biffen family at Arnage Farms near Ellon, where a lot of the ground has been in constant cropping. The family has now incorporated forage crops into the arable rotation, with winter barley stubbles being sown hard behind the combine before going to spring crop the following year. This method has visibly boosted spring barley crops this year and in the coming years will help to boost overall farm fertility.
We often have very short memories in farming. Go back to mid-August 2017 when the weather broke just as harvest season came upon us. Constant rain and low temperatures saw grass supplies vanish in a matter of weeks and many farms were feeding silage by the last days of September.
This was followed by a late spring of 2018. Silage reserves were exhausted and feed costs soared, and on the Farm Profit Programme focus farms’ gross margin/cow took a £124 hit – mainly due to increased winter feed costs.
We are just at the beginning of August, who’s to say there might not be a very long winter ahead. Sowing a forage crop in the coming weeks can at least knock some length off your housed winter period, reducing feed and bedding costs on your farm.
Total cost saving
As outlined above, some benefits are difficult to put a figure on. However, the sum of the benefits could be worth well in excess of £100/cow.