Focus on getting more milk from forage

The recent upward trend in milk prices is certainly welcome, however, the challenge is to ensure as much of the increase as possible can be converted into increased margins.

At the same time as milk prices have increased, we have seen leaps in commodity feed ingredients and purchased feed costs, in part fuelled by currency volatility in the wake of the Brexit decision. Forecasts are for feed price increases to hold or even increase further.

The consequence is that the milk price to feed price ratio (the kilos of concentrates you can purchase with the income from one litre of milk) remains below the levels seen three years ago before the decline in milk prices. So while the higher milk prices have helped improve prospects, margins could remain tight – unless the emphasis remains on getting a higher proportion of milk from forage.

Many herds struggled to perform as well off forage last winter. Consequently purchased feed rates and feed costs per litre are higher while yield per cow and milk from forage are less than last winter. With extra milk from purchased feeds unlikely to deliver a significant return, we have to look at production from forage to make the most of higher milk prices.

The rule of thumb target for efficient production is that at least 40% of milk should come from forage whilst the top 25% of producers achieve in excess of 50%. The Promar average is 32%, so these businesses should be targeting at least an extra 8% of output from forage. For many, the opportunity will be greater.

Now is the time to start planning how you will increase production from all forages, whether grazed or conserved. For conserved forages there are three key questions that need to be addressed.

Could you feed more forage?

On many farms the issue is that they aren’t producing enough forage to allow cows to consume at least 12kg forage DM per day. Every kilo of forage dry matter that is replaced by concentrates will increase costs by 11p/cow/day, which adds up to £5,500 for a 200 cow herd in a typical winter. If forage production is falling below target now is the time to consider how to produce more, perhaps by adding a second or third cut crop such as wholecrop.

Can you make it better?

Extra quantity can never come at the expense of quality. There is no point making more forage if it is poorer quality. Take time to study your forage analysis over the last few years. Are you making the best quality forage you can? If not, start planning how to improve, perhaps by cutting earlier or using a crop and condition inoculant to ensure better fermentation and stability during feed out.

Can you waste less?

It is a sobering thought that on average, 20% of the dry matter and nutrients you harvest will never actually get to the rumen of your cows. Make a realistic assessment of waste levels and then plan how to reduce them. Good sheeting and a proven inoculant are one way to reduce clamp losses.

If you are serious about making the most of higher milk prices, then you must make forage work harder for you.

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