Grow enough feed

With sky-high fertiliser prices and some fertiliser products in scarce supply, many farmers are talking about reducing fertiliser use in 2022.

This makes total sense in situations where excess grass and silage is being grown, relative to the herd’s needs.

This can be identified by having ever-increasing silage stocks left over after winter, making excess round bales from surplus grass or having to top paddocks multiple times per year to keep on top of residuals.

The risk here is that not enough winter feed will be grown

However, where the amount of grass grown and the demand for grass and silage is more closely aligned, as is the case on the majority of well-run dairy farms, reducing fertiliser as a means of protecting profit comes with a warning. The risk here is that not enough winter feed will be grown and as a result silage stocks could get depleted in early spring 2023.

Irish farmers experienced weather-related fodder deficits in spring 2013 and 2018. This resulted in much more meal having to be fed and in many cases expensive, middling quality silage and hay needed to be purchased and fed out. This increased feed costs and reduced milk output – a double blow.

As the Irish Farmers Journal has previously highlighted, expensive fertiliser is still the cheapest way of providing feed to cows and cattle.

That’s not to say that fertiliser use can’t be curtailed, because it can, even on very efficient farms. Best policy is to identify the fields where less fertiliser can be spread, such as those with high clover contents, high index four for phosphorus and potassium and where slurry is being spread with a trailing shoe or dribble bar.

The latter is particularly relevant when planning fertiliser strategy on silage ground.

To correctly over sow clover there will be a big reduction in pasture growth because little or no nitrogen should be spread after sowing

Many farmers are talking about establishing clover this year as a means of reducing reliance on chemical nitrogen.

Again, this needs to come with a health warning. To correctly over sow clover there will be a big reduction in pasture growth because little or no nitrogen should be spread after sowing and the field will be grazed at low covers.

The question is, in a year when feed could be scarce, can farmers afford to take a hit on grass production? Remember, the main benefits from establishing clover will come in the years following establishment, not necessarily in the year that it’s sown. The same can be said for reseeding in 2022 – can you afford to have a field out of production for the peak growing period?

Cut back on meal

The gradual increase in the amount of meal being fed to cows is scary. National Farm Survey data shows that the average amount of meal being fed on Irish dairy farms is almost 1,200kg per cow, up from 875kg/cow in 2010.

This is an increase of almost 40% in meal use per cow, despite the 2010 Teagasc Roadmap targeting an average of 750kg of meal fed per cow in 2020.

Even good grassland farmers are feeding a high level of meal, as evidenced by the recent judging of the Grassland Farmer of the Year competition where feeding 1t of meal per cow was the norm, rather than the exception, among the participating farmers.

The average amount of meal being fed in Northern Ireland in 1993 was 1.1t/cow and today it is over 2.5t/cow on average

If this trend isn’t arrested the average amount of meal being fed will be close to 1.7t/cow by 2030. If you think this isn’t possible, the average amount of meal being fed in Northern Ireland in 1993 was 1.1t/cow and today it is over 2.5t/cow on average.

There’s a myriad of possible reasons why farmers are feeding 40% more meal than they were a decade ago, such as:

  • Farmers are being tacitly encouraged to produce more milk solids by those with no skin in the game. These hurlers on the ditch include salespeople, AI companies and some poorly informed advisers. The easiest way to achieve this is to feed more meal.
  • Higher milking platform stocking rates increase the need for supplementary feeding.
  • Higher-EBI cows are producing more milk solids, are less robust and have a higher requirement for supplement.
  • Employees and farmers prefer milking when meal is being fed in the parlour and low-cost batch feeding systems can only feed a minimum of 1.6kg/day.
  • Research shows that where meal costs increase by one unit, total costs increase by 1.5 units. This proves that while there may be times when extra meal can be justified based on response rates, milk price etc, when the extra ancillary costs are included there is absolutely no financial gain from feeding more meal to produce more milk solids.

    As feed costs are set to increase by up to 10% in the next few weeks, it’s an opportune time to take a step back and reconsider meal feeding strategy and turn back the dial on the feeders, or else invest in feeders that allow meal to be fed at low rates.

    Reduce energy consumption

    Energy prices have been rising steadily throughout 2021, with gas prices peaking in late December. While the effect on fertiliser price has been well documented, rising energy costs have a direct effect on other farm input costs too.

    Reducing exposure to rising costs involves both reducing consumption and making sure the energy you are buying is the cheapest available.

    The latter involves pricing around for electricity and diesel. For electricity, there are various pricing websites which compare tariffs. There are even companies offering switching services who identify the cheapest tariffs and take a cut of the savings.

    Finding value

    Finding good value is not just about the lowest cost per kilowatt hour as different electricity companies apply different tariffs depending on consumption patterns.

    If there is more than one electricity meter on the farm, it may be prudent to have each one with a different company in order to maximise the lowest rates.

    Most electricity companies offer discounts to new customers, so regularly switching suppliers is a good tactic to reduce costs. Using night rate electricity as much as possible will also offer considerable savings over day rate. Make sure you are utilising night rate.

    A correctly functioning plate cooler has a payback of about three years

    Reducing consumption will be a necessity if you wish to control energy costs in 2022. The main users of electricity on dairy farms are water heating and milk cooling. Combined, these account for about 50% of electricity usage.

    A correctly functioning plate cooler has a payback of about three years in terms of reduced electricity costs. It may give a faster return this year. Most other energy-reducing items have a longer payback period.

    Turning off lights when not required, not running machines for longer than necessary and being more efficient with water heating are other means to reduce consumption.

    In terms of tractor diesel, tasks such as driving tractors to outfarms, rolling grazing fields and topping after grazing are tasks that use a lot of diesel for little to no return and should be ceased.

    Using an appropriate sized tractor for the job at hand is another important point as this has a big impact on diesel consumption.

    Big tractors should not be used for small jobs and vice versa.

    Maintain output

    One of the most useful graphs on the ICBF co-op performance report is the graph of milk solids per cow per day.

    The blue line is for the current year while the grey line is for last year. The rate of incline in spring is governed by calving rate while the level of the peak is governed by genetics, feed quality and weather, etc.

    What’s of interest is the persistency of the peak. On some farms performance per cow tails off sharply in June and July and then levels off before falling again in the late autumn. In other cases it hops around from month to month. Both point to a grass quality problem.

    Even if feeding 2kg of meal per cow per day during the summer, over 90% of the diet on a dry matter basis is still grazed grass so the quality of this grass is essential for high performance. The objective is to have a slow and gradual tail off in production from the peak and farmers who are good at grass tend to achieve this.

    Better management

    Holding peak by an extra 0.2kg MS/cow is worth €60/cow in June and July alone for no extra cost, just managing grass better.

    What does managing grass better mean? Essentially, it’s about grazing covers at around 1,400kg DM/ha rather than 1,700kg DM/ha or more.

    According to PastureBase data, those measuring grass are grazing the correct covers only 25% of the time with 64% of users grazing covers higher than 1,600kg DM/ha. Remember, these are farmers who are measuring and managing grass and even they are struggling to get it right.

    This highlights the potential that there is to produce more milk solids during the mid-season by just ensuring cows enter paddocks at the correct pre-grazing yields. Let this be a challenge for 2022.