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As a general statement, few would dispute home grown feeds are cheapest. However, we need to look at this more closely. Should we talk just feeds per se, or energy? It is energy we convert to milk. We should be discussing the cost of energy in any given feed when deciding what is cheapest. Effectively, feed dollars converted to milk dollars for this is the real determinant of profit.
That’s the simple equation, but from there on it can become quite complicated by debates over the cost of grass, by rates of digestibility (a subject I want to address next month), and by rumen health/function or feed conversion efficiency. We will leave these complications out of this discussion as my goal is to drive forage production on farm to at least validate the mantra of home grown feeds being the cheapest.
Home grown forage may or may not be the cheapest forage, but grain generally stands alone on energy cost. Home grown forage cost depends heavily on the value of the land it is grown on, the yield per annum per hectare, its digestibility and energy density. For our regular monthly clients we can determine grass grazed in tonnes of dry matter (TDM) and collate monthly averages for the full year. We can add to this quite accurately TDM silage, measure summer crops and cost each out. Due to wide variations between farms on the above criteria, we choose to take a mean value for grazed pasture at $250/TDM. This gives us a basis for silage cost, and good comparative data within farms from year to year.
I believe the district average for SW Victoria is in the vicinity 4 to 4.5 TDM/ha pasture harvested (machine or grazed). Yet we are aware of farms where we have measurement from monthly consumption, harvesting 10 TDM/ha and higher. Obviously, there is a massive difference in pasture cost irrespective of additional input cost to achieve this high TDM/ha. There usually is a serendipitous increase in digestibility with higher yielding farms, and this only magnifies the feed to milk dollar conversion potential/profit.
I raise this subject each year around July/August as that is when we prepare Feed Budgets for our clients. It is the most-timely part of the season to do so, so we can plan summer forage crops types/hectares etc., estimate silage requirements including our goal of 50% extra for reserves, based on the previous year’s forage harvested over each farm. Solid silage reserves can insulate us significantly from the many vagaries of season, grain and milk price we are subject to these days. Achieving these silage reserves also come under our summer cropping program with crops such as sorghum.
Over many years of preparing Feed Budgets for clients, compounded by observations, we have come to realise some of the limitations to home grown forage production. Things like compaction – pasture plants pulled up by grazing cows due to shallow rooting. Declining plant densities, and falling yields which are now known to be associated with lack of rotational crops. Differing plant species remove and deposit different things in soil, but all contribute to improved yields. There are synergies to yield through plant rotations. To resolve these impediments to yield we developed a Seven Year Paddock Plan for each of our clients. The goal is to address the above limitations, improve soil health/organic matter and yield capacity. The basic idea is two years in crops, up to three crops per year, then back to pasture for five years.
We believe, based on overseas data, that we can increase home grown forage harvested and hence lower the cost of feed, or rather, the cost of energy harvested/ha, through crop rotations. This principle has been known and practiced, especially by cereal grows, for many years. Both land (due to land value), and cows (due to maintenance energy cost), have fixed costs that can only be diluted to the benefit of profit, by increased yield – either TDM/ha or litres/cow.
Our potential to achieve this in our dairying areas is massive. The next ‘big thing’, we believe. We have clients that have achieved dramatically increased TDM harvested over their farms simply through summer fodder crop programs. We are now taking that to a new level with a more holistic plan spanning seven years. Our goals include improving soil health/productivity through rotational crops, addressing soil compaction, initially mechanically, but further through selecting deep rooted crops. Deep ripping has questions over its effectiveness in the longer term, and possible damage to soil structure, but can certainly open ground to facilitate deeper rooting of crops/plants immediately following.
Rotational cropping has added potential to increase soil organic matter, an issue we think has deteriorated our dairy land’s productivity over the last fifty years. The benefits of increased organic matter on an organic farm we work with showcase this potential. This organic farm nowadays would out yield many conventional farms and has a per cow milk production average 60% higher than the national average.
Crop root systems deposit organic matter in soils. Likewise, stubble from crops, although nitrogen must be available to breakdown residue or new seedlings will suffer retarded growth until plant residue has been broken down. A clover crop through winter can provide excellent high calcium silage for dry and springing cows, but also increase soil N for the following summer crop. We have measured very high turnip yields following a winter clover crop.
Overseas research has demonstrated reduced weed and pest problems through rotational crop programs. As with antibiotics in treating disease/infections in cows, we will be restricted in the use of these and plant protection chemicals in the very near future. Garden enthusiasts know well that various plants protect and encourage growth in other plants. We need to return our farms to more natural biology, and I’m confident we can do so and increase our profitability.
Calcium is essential for mineral movement in soils, making them available to plants, and for the same reason in cows’ digestive systems. The application of lime to farms has deteriorated dramatically over my lifetime. I suspect this too has reduced our soil’s capacity to support vibrant plant growth, apart from soil pH.
The last twelve months has shocked us all, both farmers and the service industry. Innovation and prosperity almost always rises from the rubble of adversity; and rarely from affluence.
John Lyne is a dairy production specialist with Dairytech Nutrition