Dairy farmers require cows to produce 30% more milk from every 1kg of concentrate fed this winter, to meet break-even costs.

Speaking at last week’s AgriSearch industry webinar looking at options for dairy farmers this autumn, former AFBI CEO Dr Sinclair Mayne assessed the impact of lower milk prices against projected winter feed costs.

He pointed out that last winter, milk prices from October to March were around 46p/l, with concentrate prices at £380/t, which meant farmers needed to produce 0.8 litres of milk for every 1kg of concentrate fed to make it economically viable.

This winter, taking milk prices at 30p/l and concentrate price of £350/t, farmers must produce 1.12 litres of milk for every 1kg of concentrate to cover the cost.

“That’s a 30% increase in yield response to meal feeding and that will be a challenging scenario. It is very rare to get a milk yield response above one litre for every 1kg of concentrate fed,” said Mayne.

Concentrate levels

He also highlighted that concentrate feeding is subject to the law of diminishing returns, meaning cows yield less milk for every additional kg of meal fed.

For example, when moving from 7kg of concentrate to 8kg, there is a greater response in milk yield than increasing from 12kg to 13kg.

“Farmers need to look at the economics of feeding this winter. Higher meal levels will be needed in early lactation to maintain cow health and fertility. But once cows are settled in-calf, consider pulling back meal levels, as it simply will not pay to continue feeding high levels of concentrate this winter,” he said.

Forage quality

However, if meal levels are to be reduced, then forage quality becomes more important, as does silage reserves, given that cows will eat more fodder to compensate for less concentrate in the diet.

Dry conditions in May and June should result in good- quality, first-cut silage on-farm. But the wet summer means poor-quality second cuts.

The impact of low-quality grass is less energy in the feed, lower dry matter intake and also poorer fermentation.

“Every one unit decline in D-value reduces milk yield by 0.3 litres to 0.4 litres/day. It will also reduce milk protein, as energy drives protein concentration.

“At 9kg of concentrate, there is yield difference of around 4 litres/day between good and poor-quality silage.

“That differential remains similar at higher and lower concentrate levels,” said Dr Mayne.

Higher costs with marginal litres

In his presentation during the AgriSearch webinar, CAFRE adviser, Martin Reel looked at the economics of producing milk this upcoming winter.

He said that farmers are still facing high input costs and that last year the meal bill accounted for approximately 20% of the monthly milk cheque. Currently, meal costs make up around 50% of the milk cheque.

Farmers also have high energy and fuel costs to deal with and this is causing serious issues for cash flow.

“It is not viable to do nothing with regards to cost. At the same time, avoid knee jerk reactions such as cutting back on expenses like animal health. Equally, don’t rush into feeding more meal to produce more milk. That meal comes at a cost and the extra milk has to be cooled” said Reel.


Highlighting the costs involved with producing more milk, Reel outlined costings based on a milk price of 30p/l and concentrates at £350/t.

Assuming farmers can achieve 1.2 litres of milk to cover the cost of feeding an extra 1kg of meal, it would generate an extra 36p in terms of income.

“Deducting meal costs of 35p/kg fed leaves a margin of 1p/l before factoring in energy or labour. Last winter, there was a margin of 16p/l over concentrate to produce more milk,” said Reel.

Third milking

Where farmers are considering three times per day milking, he outlined the economics for a highly efficient 100 cow herd, yielding 30 litres per cow daily.

Assuming milk yields increased by 15% on the third milking, it gives an additional income of 90p/cow per day.

However, costing labour at £50/milking, energy costs of 4.5p/cow, plus higher concentrate feeding, producing that extra milk costs 101.8p/cow.

“With the budget showing a loss of 11p/cow, the reality is that on the majority of farms, going to three times per day milking is not economical this winter” Reel concluded.

Prevention costs less than treating animals

There are likely to be health implications where animals are offered poor-quality forage and less concentrate this winter, Dr Mark Little from Fane Valley told attendees at the AgriSearch webinar.

He pointed out that nutrition is directly linked to fertility and overall animal health. For cows in early lactation, they will already be in an energy deficit, and if energy intakes are reduced due to poor-quality silage and lower concentrate feeding, cows will mobilise their own body reserves.

“Metabolic problems are inevitable. Sub-clinical ketosis can affect up to 30% of cows causing immune-suppression, leaving cows more prone to mastitis or metritis. Lameness is also more common,” said Little.

He advised farmers to feed properly formulated diets based on forage analysis to avoid metabolic problems, including to cows that are dried off.

“Keeping forage intakes high is crucial in dry cows as lower quality forages tend to be included in such diets. With a lot of poor quality silage on farm this winter, there will be higher incidences of milk fever if the dry cow diet is not properly balanced. Don’t forget the importance of trace minerals,” he said.


Following the wet July and August, Little also advised farmers to start checking cows for fluke burdens from September onwards, and not to take their eye off young stock.

Cutting back on vaccines for respiratory diseases, and feeding low quality forage to replacements and calves will create problems down the line, he said.

Forage options available on beef farms

Last Wednesday evening, AgriSearch also hosted a webinar for beef farmers, focusing on autumn and winter management.

Speaking at the event, CAFRE adviser Nigel Gould recommended completing a fodder budget now to determine how much silage is on-farm.

Where farmers are running short, he suggested strong, spring-born calves could be weaned, with cows put on a maintenance diet. In addition, pregnancy scanning would allow empty cows to be offloaded, again freeing up fodder.

Gould said weaned calves could be returned to grass for as long as possible into autumn. However, he stressed that extending autumn grazing should not be at the expense of spring grass and recommended grazing swards are rested for a minimum of 120 days over winter.

Grazing quality

AFBI’s Francis Lively, pointed out that dry matter in autumn-grazed grass is low at 15%, but the energy (ME) and protein content is still higher than many second-cut silages.

“Make every attempt to utilise fresh grass, but be selective on which animals are used for grazing” advised Lively.

He said that bigger, forward stores cannot physically eat enough fresh grass to maintain daily liveweight gains of 1kg/day, so they are better off housed early.

However, lighter weanlings, around 300kg, have a fresh grass requirement of 40-50kg/day, and it is possible to achieve these intakes on autumn grass, while getting weight gains around 0.7kg/day.


When it comes to feeding silage, Lively said that if offering 30% dry matter material, a 300kg weanling will eat around 20kg/day on a fresh-weight basis. But if dry matter drops to 20%, the same animal requires 30kg/day of silage.

“Be mindful that with wet, low-quality silage, protein content will also be reduced. Store cattle will take a big hit in weight gain without significant concentrate supplementation. Concentrates are still expensive, so if silage quality is poor, the economics of winter finishing are highly questionable,” Lively concluded.

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