The need to build up forage stocks in an uncertain world

Last year was difficult for so many reasons but particularly for farmers trying to grow sufficient high-quality forage for their livestock.

Early dry weather in the spring gave lower quantities of good-quality forage. Due to unprecedented price rises, many farmers chose to cut back or completely stop using bagged fertiliser, which reduced forage yields even further.

Forage shortages were then compounded by the worst drought in the UK for 46 years, which caused severe summer grazing shortages.

Typically, forage maize yields were also down by 20 to 30% on average, just when needed the most and adding to the problem.

However, the extremely mild late autumn gave some respite, allowing for very late silage to be made and for herds to be housed later.

There is likely to be increased demand for purchased conserved grass, maize and straw this winter which will see higher prices as more farmers start to run out of forage.

An early spring is certainly wanted but cannot be relied on to bail out forage shortages every year. It’s going to take careful planning, investment and considerable management skills.

So, what can be done to boost forage production on your farm?

Probably the most important thing is to carry out a forage budget for the year ahead. How much grazing is required? How much conserved forage is needed?

Once you have this figure add 20% on to the required tonnage to replenishing depleted forage stocks and as a contingency for a longer than expected winter.

Despite the rising cost of forage production, it’s all relative as bought-in feed costs have gone up by a similar amount. The adage grazing is by far the cheapest form of feed, with silage around half the cost of buying in cake, still holds true.

Providing enough quality forage will help insulate your business from the extreme world volatility we are facing on energy, oil, fertiliser and feed costs.

The best ways of dealing with forage shortages will differ on each farm, but it is important a ‘Forage Plan’ is put into action.

Having a Nutrient Management Plan will be key. Assess your soils by measuring fields for pH and nutrient status. Record the results and plan actions to rectify any shortcomings.

Making better use of slurry and FYM by having more storage to allow you to apply at the right time of year, with the right application system, will help make the most of this valuable resource.

Assessment of sward quality is also key to getting more quality forage. Old, underperforming leys need to be replaced or renovated to increase production.

New leys recovered faster and produced more after the drought last year. It’s not uncommon for new leys to produce twice as much grass as worn-out leys.

The judicious use of bagged fertiliser still plays a vital role on most dairy units, which need to maximise first cut grass acres and yield. Total fertiliser use for the season will depend on livestock intensity and the need to replenish forage stocks. Maximising nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) will be a key performance indicator.

Some farms will choose to rely more heavily on multi-species leys with a heavier reliance on legumes, to fix natural nitrogen from the atmosphere, combining the use of other brassica and forage crops to reduce fertiliser input, improve grassland management and maintain stock levels.

At a time of war, high energy costs and spiralling inflation, with volatile end product prices, all producers will need to focus on getting more from forage to safeguard their businesses.

For help with your forage plans please contact our Grassland and Forage Team on 01769 576232