Wholecrop silage to spread forage risk

Cereal wholecrop silage can be a useful addition to a dairy farm rotation, as it increases forage digestibility, spreads workloads and reduces the risk of relying on good weather at grass and maize harvest, advises silage inoculant supplier Biotal, a Lallemand Animal Nutrition business.

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Biotal’s national technical support manager Roy Eastlake unveiled the results of a major wholecrop trial to the trade press last week. He estimates that wholecrop now accounts for some 5% of the silages made in the UK each year, but believes there is potential to increase this figure.

With a background of low milk prices, maximising production from forage is the obvious way to increase the dairy farm bottom line, he stated. KIngshay data shows that already the top 25% herds have lower overall yields but higher margins per cow though better forage utilisation.

The 2015 wholecrop trial, commissioned by Biotal, was independently managed at Harper Adams University College by NIAB, with the agronomy overseen by the Field Solutions consultancy and all the silage analysis undertaken by Trouw Nutrition GB. It compared a number of winter and spring cereals – wheat, barley, oats rye and triticale - harvested at different dates and ensiled.

The information is being compiled in a manual for trade and farmers, which is to be published in time for the Livestock Event in early July.

The overall finding was that starch and dry matter contents increased over time, while ‘D’ levels and fibre content were relatively constant. This means that harvesting dates are more flexible with wholecrop than grass, where the heading window is relatively short, or maize where a wet period in the autumn can see nutrient levels decline rapidly. This makes wholecrop a more flexible option, argues Mr Eastlake.

In addition, the inclusion of some wholecrop silage can ‘open out’ a TMR ration, adding fibre and making it more palatable. The more structured fibre helps with cudding and rumen function.

Whole crop silage can buffer the risk between grass and maize silages, with less reliance on the weather. It also can help spread the farm workload across the year, and offer a better return than a second wheat grown as a cash crop. Other advantages are a good entry for grass reseeds and a chance to clear ground for early muck and slurry applications.

However, cereal crops will need a high level of agronomic management to produce their full potential – where this is not available on a traditional dairy unit, the expertise can be contracted in, Mr Eastlake says.

“Most dairy farms rely on a combination of maize and grass to fulfil winter forage needs, yet in most years, one or either crop fails to live up to expectations, leaving a deficit in forage quantity, quality or both – any of which will increase costs,” Mr Eastlake observes.

“Rather than being seen as an alternative source of starch to maize, fermented wholecrop should be seen as a way to spread risk and deliver a lower cost system. By allowing a range of harvest dates, it can be cut strategically to react to the season as it unfolds. This flexibility allows farmers to more consistently achieve the yields of quality forage required to maximise yield from forage and reduce the demand for purchased feeds.”