Forage crops can provide the ideal solution for farmers with limited winter accommodation, and help reduce the feed and bedding costs of livestock during the winter months. There has been an increased interest in forage crops over the last number of years, with over 17,000ha being sown in Scotland last year, according to Scottish Government census data – an increase of 2% year on year.
Getting it right
There are many things to consider when planning a winter grazing crop. Getting the basics right will go a long way to making out-wintering a success on your farm.
Cattle and sheep are naturally meant to be outside. Low temperatures are not a problem for stock to deal with, provided they have adequate shelter from the elements.
At this stage of the year, the crop is ready for grazing. Hopefully the correct decisions were made at sowing time in relation to crop type and location. Ideally, forage crops should be sown in free-draining land, with an adequate lie-back area and shelter in the form of hedgerows or trees.
Having a dry lie is a must if this system is to be successful. If animals are lying on wet ground they will be burning more energy just to maintain their core temperature. This will lead to excessive condition loss and other health problems. If a dry lying area is not attainable then housing animals is the only solution.
The transition from a grass- or silage-based diet to a forage crop needs to be carefully managed.
The transition from a grass- or silage-based diet to a forage crop needs to be carefully managed. While these crops are forage crops, it is better to think of them as a wet concentrate feed. As you would when transitioning to a high-concentrate diet, the same should be done when starting to feed forage crops. Start with a small proportion of the diet being forage crop while the reminder of the diet remains the same.
Gradually, over a 10-day to two-week period, increase the daily allocation of forage crop to the animal. This period should increase to three weeks where fodder beet is being offered. This is especially true for cattle. Sheep are less prone to issues and can be transitioned that bit quicker.
The total forage crop proportion of the diet should not exceed two-thirds on a dry matter basis.
All forage crops have a low fibre content and therefore need to be supplemented with a suitable fibre source to maintain rumen function.
This fibre source can be in the form of straw, hay or silage. For out-wintered dry cows in decent body condition, straw will work best as it will slow passage rate of the crop. These cows can afford to gradually lose some condition over the winter period in the run-up to calving.
However, for young stock or in-calf heifers, good-quality hay or silage should be used. We need these stock classes to be performing and growing over the wintering period and therefore having high-quality feed that will also provide the needed fibre source is a must to meet liveweight targets.
It is important to get mineral supplementation correct. Typically, forage crops are low in phosphorus and magnesium, as well as being low in trace elements such as copper, iodine, selenium, manganese, zinc and cobalt.
Bolusing stock with a suitable product prior to moving on to forage crops is one way to ensure adequate mineral supplementation. Most feed companies now have a specific mineral bucket for forage crops and this may be well worth the investment. Where mineral buckets or powder are being offered, it is very important that neither run out at any stage.
The stubble turnip trial plots at Arnage farm.
Access to clean fresh water at all times is a necessity for stock. Although forage crops are typically low in dry matter, if water intake is compromised, even for a short period of time, it will affect feed intake, which could cause health issues. This can be especially true in periods of cold weather where drinking troughs may be frozen.
The best way to allocate the crop is to use a single-strand (cattle) or multiple-strand (sheep) electric fence. In taller crops, it may be necessary to tramp down a path for the fence to maintain power levels.
To maximise crop utilisation and to get the best return on your investment in the crop, it is necessary to shift the fence daily.
After a few days of feeding at full rate, you will be able to judge the correct crop allocation, provided stock numbers on the crop remain constant. This can also be worked out on a dry matter intake basis. It is more important to do this when feeding a crop such as fodder beet.
Fodder beet as a whole is a fairly well balanced diet. However, the majority of the protein in the crop is located in the tops, while the energy is very much in the root. Issues arise when allocation is incorrect and livestock graze all the tops and are then left an extra day to clean up the roots which leads to a diet imbalance. As winter progresses and more leaf is lost to frost damage, it is important to have good-quality, high-protein silage available as a balancer with beet.
Feeding forage crops in frosty weather can be difficult. Frost causes higher nitrate levels in the leaves of the plant. This can lead to poisoning of the animal if not managed correctly. Symptoms of nitrate poisoning are typically rapid breathing, tremors and animals down. Nitrate poisoning can kill an animal quickly.
The best way to avoid issues is to only move stock once the frost has lifted. Moving the fence in the afternoon rather than every morning will work here in most cases. Keep a watchful eye on all stock during these periods and make sure the water source is running freely.
Not all stock will be suited to forage crops. Some thinner skinned or poor conditioned animals will not be suitable for out-wintering and should be drafted from the group prior to winter. Some animals will not graze forage crops and you will see a rapid decline in condition. Keep a close eye for these and remove as soon as possible.
Arnage farm meeting – Stubble turnip trial
A follow up meeting for the stubble turnip trial at Mains of Arnage has been set for Wednesday 4 December at 10.30am. The meeting will give people a chance to come and see the results from the live sowing demo held at Arnage in early August.
Four different drills were used to sow stubble turnips into winter barley stubbles – each given a 2ha plot. The machines were a Horsh Pronto, a Sim-tech Aitchison, a Simba X-press and a System Cameleon.
The meeting will discuss sowing method and costs, yields, lessons learned to date and grazing strategies. All are welcome. For more information, call Declan or Robert on 07393 234935 / 07393 234934 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.