Planning buffer requirements now key to tackling silage shortages

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Hands holding silage image

Getting buffer feeding right will be critical this spring as the impact of last summer’s dry weather is still being felt on dairy units across the country. According to KW nutritionist Charlotte Ward, silage shortages are the biggest concern for most, with remaining stocks already stretched thin to last until turnout.

“The worst affected areas are generally in the south and east of England, Wales and the Midlands,” states Ms Ward. “Further north, there were opportunities to make additional late cuts of grass silage, but much of it is high in protein and low in fibre – not ideal for balancing spring grass.

“The volume of additional feed needed this spring will depend on a number of factors, such as how reliant the herd is on buffer feeding through the grazing season, as well as the date when new crop silages will be ready to feed out. The key is to work out requirements as accurately as you can now, and build a plan to counter any silage shortfall.”

Maintaining cow performance

Hoping for a plentiful supply of high quality grazing isn’t the answer, warns Ms Ward, as the risk of poor weather is just too great. And if grass growth is anything less than ideal, even those operating New Zealand-style grazing systems may well need to buffer through till the end of April to maintain production and start rebuilding cow condition.

“For many, it’s going to be tempting to cut back and rely more heavily on grazing, but that’s likely to be a false economy,” she continues. “Spring and summer feeding not only provides an opportunity for extra low-cost milk production, it’s also the foundation for performance next winter.

“Given that there are plenty of cows still needing to regain condition lost last summer, limiting buffer feeding will only extend the problem, with knock-on effects for cow performance later in the year.”

Buffer feeding priorities

Buffer feeding this spring therefore needs to support both body condition and provide the nutrients needed for yields above the 10-12 litres/cow typically produced from grazing. It also needs to maximise utilisation of the nutrients in the grass by correctly balancing them with complementary feeds.

“That means prioritising feeds which contain lower levels of the rumen degradable protein (RDP) and sugars so prevalent in spring grass, and that are high in the fibre that’s essential for good rumen function and help maintain milk fat production,” she adds.

Traffodgold clamp tipping image
Moist feeds like Traffordgold offer better value for money than their dry equivalents.

According to Ms Ward, moist feeds remain one of the best value options to replace silage in buffer rations, both in terms of value and nutrient content. Feeds like brewer’s grains, draff and Traffodgold wheat-gluten moist feed contain high levels of digestible fibre energy, plus a good proportion of rumen-bypass protein to balance the RDP in spring grass.

“Moist feeds also add palatability to buffer rations, which can help lift intakes if forage shortages mean that only lower quality silages are available, or additional straw is being fed,” she adds.
“To directly replace 4kg of 30% DM grass silage would take around 2.5kg of Traffordgold wheat-gluten moist feed, 5.0kg of brewers’ grains or 6.0kg of draff (on a freshweight basis), depending on availability.

“In addition, all supply extra energy compared to a typical 10.5MJ ME/kg DM grass silage, so there’s additional milk output to help offset costs (table 1).”

Table 1 – Options to replace 4kg FW of grass silage1 in buffer rations this spring (click to enlarge)

Dry feed options

Other options for digestible fibre energy include sugar beet feed, which is low in protein and ideal for feeding alongside spring grass. Soya hulls are also worth considering, with prices having come down in recent months.

“A 50:50 mix of soya hulls and palm kernel expeller can work well as a dry silage replacer. As with the moist feed options already mentioned, there’s an additional payback in terms of extra milk production that will help cover some of the extra feed cost (table 1).

Other feeds to consider as part of the mix include sodawheat to provide additional starch energy in a form that minimises the risk of acidosis (particularly if maize silage volumes are tight). For additional rumen-bypass protein to balance high grass RDP levels, NovaPro heat-treated rapeseed expeller is not only better value than soyabean meal (14.4 vs. 16.8p/100g DUP3), it also helps avoid nitrogen overload in the rumen by having a lower RDP content.

“Finally, don’t forget the value of adding a live yeast like Vistacell or a slow-release rumen conditioner such as Acid Buf,” Ms Ward concludes. “Both can help improve rumen function and feed efficiency, and reduce the need for additional feed by making even better use of the silage you have still got in the clamps.”

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