Reducing winter feed costs with silage
This week, Robert Gilchrist looks at some of the processes of making high-quality silage to reduce winter feed cost.

One of the core concepts that the focus farms have engaged with is making high-quality grass silage to reduce winter feed costs. The first question on everyone’s mind is: how do we go about making high-quality silage?

Silage is a balancing act between quantity and quality. Maximum feed value would be realised by cutting it at the three-leaf stage and ensiling. However, with costs of ensiling upwards of £130/ha, the dry matter (DM) yield is not high enough to make this practical.

So what is the correct stage to cut at? A rule of thumb is that once a grass plant starts to push up flowering stems, the D-value will fall by 0.5 units per day.

This means that ear emergence drives decision-making for when to cut. Table 1 is taken from the AHDB publication Making grass Silage for Better Returns.

Grass varieties in Scotland are detailed on the Scottish Recommended List, available on the Farm Advisory Service website (

Each variety is rated based on its heading date, meaning that each variety in an average year will head at a known point in the season, relative to 1 May.

This means that for a known silage mix, it is quite easy to have an idea as to when the field will go to head.

Cutting date can then be decided based on what class of livestock are being fed.

Youngstock and pre-lambing ewes need to be getting fed on 70 D-value, high-quality silage, ie cutting at 25% ear emergence. Most of the focus farms are aiming for this early cut silage to reduce the amount of concentrates being fed – keeping the winter feed costs down.

However, some have dry, spring-calving cows on silage diets too. These animals do not need such high-quality silage and allowing the grass to bulk up and make silage in the low to mid 60s D-value makes more financial sense.

For those that have both dry cows and youngstock to feed, the ideal strategy is to take high-quality, highly digestible first-cut silage early in the season and then let the grass bulk up to make a lower-quality, second cut in late summer, giving a balance of both types.


Deciding how much nitrogen to apply is driven by the fact that grassland will utilise 2.5kg of nitrogen per day under ideal growing conditions.

In colder, wetter weather, utilisation will be poorer. Where weather conditions have not been favourable in the run up to silage cutting, and you are unsure whether the grass has used all of the nitrogen that has been applied, it is prudent to have a fresh grass sample tested for nitrates before cutting.

High nitrogen or nitrate levels in silage crops can lead to high ammonia and low sugar levels, meaning a very poor fermentation of the silage. Where the results of a forage sample are borderline high, a successful 24-hour wilt will help to reduce nitrate levels. If a grass mix is likely to head around the end of May and we want to be cutting it at 25% ear emergence, we are looking at a cutting date of mid to late May. This means that in order to ensure that all the nitrogen is used in the growing period, applying 100kg/ha of nitrogen in early April will give maximum growth effect while still allowing a cutting date in the middle of May.


Where silage ground is yet to be fertilised, you can still make high-quality, relatively early cut silage by reducing the total nitrogen applied to the crop.

An added benefit of an early first cut is the length of the season it leaves you with, allowing you to get a second cut and subsequent grazing for the rest of the year.

As can be seen, the potash offtake from a silage crop is quite large and in order to maintain soil fertility it is key to ensure this is replaced, either via dung and slurry or via fertiliser.

At the end of the day, making high-quality silage is a key measure to reduce winter feed costs.

When comparing the cost of silage against the cost of an average concentrate, silage is around half the cost per tonne of dry matter and if it is of good enough quality, it is more than able to replace the concentrate.

Adviser comment – Declan Marren

Livestock are beginning to appear in fields across the northeast of the country, as ground conditions are very good and grass growth has taken off. The forecast for the next week to 10 days is quite changeable, with cold weather this week being replaced with high pressure during the weekend – with expected temperatures into the high teens, prior to returning to more average temperatures for this time of year next week.

High variations in temperature, especially from warm days to cold nights, can cause a spike in pneumonia – especially where cattle are under stress. Keep a close eye on stock over the next few days and act fast if you suspect any issues.

Cattle with pneumonia will be lethargic, slow to get up and feed, ears may be low and the animal will look dull. Where autumn calves are to be weaned prior to turnout this spring, it would be best to avoid weaning over the next few days.


With the expected rise in temperatures, the risk of a hatch for nematodirus also increases, with the SCOPS website forecasting a moderate risk in most areas of Scotland at the moment. Some actions you can take to reduce the risk is to move lambs to pastures that were not grazed by lambs last year. Treatment for netatodirus is carried out by using a white wormer – type I bendazole wormers. Remember it may be necessary to treat lambs more than once, depending on the age spread within the group and weather conditions over the next fortnight.

Price cuts and oversupply hit milk sector
Graham’s The Family Dairy was with a 10% increase in milk supply; and First Milk cut price paid in June.

Falling prices and increased volumes are challenging the dairy sector. First Milk has cut its price to producers due to “downward pressure on dairy markets”, and UK production has been hitting a 20-year high every month this year. Meanwhile, Graham’s The Family Dairy has struggled to cope.

“Our milk production was up by 10% this year, compared with last year. This is a real challenge for us as an independent family dairy business, as milk volumes must be in line with our customers’ needs,” said Robert Graham, managing director.

“We are having positive conversations with our dairy partners and colleagues to address these ongoing challenges, working together on the best way to understand what the milk supply needs to be, and deliver on it.”

As processing capacity is outstripped by supply, excess milk will be put on the market, having a downward effect on prices. Average UK price is 29p/l, slightly above the five-year average of 27.5p/l.

The UK milk future projections are also indicating an encouraging upward trend

First Milk has announced that its price will reduce by 0.3p/l from 1 June to 27.45p/l for liquid milk and 28.37p/l for manufacturing milk.

Jim Baird, First Milk vice-chair and farmer director, said: “Unfortunately, we now need to make this adjustment in light of the downward pressure on UK dairy markets. Looking forward, global dairy markets are looking more positive and, with peak largely behind us, the UK milk future projections are also indicating an encouraging upward trend.”

Market for dairy calves

Finding a market for male dairy calves was the subject of conversation at the Exiles dairy discussion group meeting in Dumfries last Tuesday.

Up until now, the only real market for these low beef-merit Holstein Friesian and Jersey-cross calves was for pet food production

The discussion group – primarily made up of spring-calving, grass-based dairy farmers in southwest Scotland and northwest England, are trying to find alternatives to slaughter for male dairy-bred calves.

Up until now, the only real market for these low beef-merit Holstein Friesian and Jersey-cross calves was for pet food production. But milk buyers, responding to concerns from the public, are beginning to enforce rules around minimum age for slaughter.

The dairy farmers say that finding an alternative market for these calves is difficult and that an industry-wide initiative needs to be put in place to reduce the number of low beef-merit calves, but also to find a market for beef calves from the dairy herd.

One farmer said it cost him £12/head to transport three-week-old Hereford-cross calves from his dairy herd near Dumfries to a market at Carlisle, only for the calves to make an average of £28 in the ring – below the cost of feed and transport.

Scottish beef and lamb markets experience a dip in price
Farmers Journal Scotland editor John Sleigh has his take on the week's lamb and beef sectors.

Cattle prices slipped a little this week as abattoirs took advantage of decent supply, with prices paid closer to £3.60/kg compared with £3.65/kg last week for an R4L steer.

The official AHDB reported price dropped 1p/kg to £3.67/kg for an R4L steer.

This maintained a premium over the northern English price of 9p/kg for the same grade cattle.

Heifers are reported by the AHDB as a good trade at £3.70/kg for an R4L.

Deadweight cow prices rose 5p/kg to £2.73/kg for an O-4L carcase, which is 8p/kg more than northern England.

Lamb market

The live market for lambs tumbled by 19p/kg to £1.88/kg for medium-weight lambs.

Heavier lambs also fell by 18p/kg to £1.76/kg live weight.

Numbers of old-season lambs sold through the live ring fell back again as the season is drawing to a close, with 1,300 fewer lambs sold, with 8,941 head through the live ring.

Meanwhile, 5,211 store lambs were sold through Scottish marts, with a big sale at United Auctions.

The AHDB is reporting a UK price of £5.04/kg for an R3L carcase, with a kill of over 16,000, which is up 7,000/head.

Numbers of new-season lambs sold through the live ring rose again by 700 head to 1,565 lambs.

Ayr, Lanark, St Boswells, UA Stirling and Thainstone marts sold over 100 new lambs each.

The average price for medium-weight lambs was £2.28/kg liveweight. Cast ewes through the ring fell nearly 1,000 head on the week to 2,668 head, as the average price dropped £5/head to £63/head.

Beef wobble worry
Farmers Journal Scotland editor John Sleigh has his take on the week's big news.

It’s worrying that a few abattoirs cut their beef price this week to just over £3.60/kg for an R4L steer. It would seem increased beef supply and weak consumption are allowing processors to claw the price back a couple pence.

Retail sales have been struggling, sliding by around 4% on the year

After a sharp fall in supply from mid-March to April, we have seen a recovery in the last three weeks. While our beef kill is unchanged on the year, when you factor in a higher average carcase weight there is 0.6% more volume on the market.

Meanwhile, retail sales have been struggling, sliding by around 4% on the year, with roasts taking a significant hit.

The good news is the current supply peak usually finishes just after the Highland Show, and barbecue season should kick in soon, helping to increase consumer demand.

No cars at future shows

Having no cars at the Highland Show was one of the recommendations by a transport expert to chief executive officer Alan Laidlaw.

Alan found it hard to imagine how thousands of farmers could descend on Ingliston without using motor vehicles.

But future planners are serious about the combustion engine’s demise, and felt that not much parking will be needed for the double centenary year in 2040.

If this comes to bare, then we better widen doors on the trains from Mallaig if we want a Highland cattle class.