How to calculate a fodder budget

The first step in preparing for the winter

Joe Kelleher

Joe Kelleher

Over 20mm of rain fell early last week in parts of the west, but the areas with the highest soil moisture deficits received little or no rain, leading to a further deterioration of the drought situation.

Late July is usually the time we start to focus on building autumn covers to allow us to extend the grazing season for as long as we can, but with many farm covers at rock bottom, this is going to be extremely challenging this year, if not impossible. So we have to look at options that many of us may have never considered before.

A recent fodder survey by Teagasc has shown that there is 28pc deficit of fodder nationally for the coming winter. To compound matters, many farmers are eating into the reserves they had set aside for the winter.

The starting point for any farmer is to complete a fodder budget.

This involves three factors: cattle numbers, the length of the winter and the daily intake of the animal.

If you wish to reduce the amount of fodder required for the winter you need to reduce one or more of these figures.

Animal numbers

We have not experienced a drought of this severity in recent years; drastic actions are required in drastic situations.

A scan carried out now will confirm the cows due to calve in February and March. Another scan in four weeks' time will identify your April calvers.

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Perhaps the stock bull should be taken out now (if not already done). This will eliminate any cows calving after May 1 and make it easier to identify cows for culling.

Culling all lame, high-SCC cows should happen as soon as possible for all farmers with a severe fodder deficit.

Yes, prices are on the floor and yes, there may be waiting lists at the factories, but holding on to these animals could be very costly in the long term.

Length of winter

The worst effects of this drought are being experienced on the most free-draining land, so extending the grazing season should be possible on most of these farms.

Building autumn covers is probably the furthest thing from many farmers' minds at present, but when the rain comes, this is where we have to focus our attention.

Continuing with the high level of supplementation in the two-to-three weeks after the rain arrives is crucial. This will allow the farm to build up a decent level of cover going into the autumn to enable us to postpone the housing period for as long as possible.

Another strategy often practised by farmers is the 'third cut'. This is where you fertilise 15-20pc of the milking block (when the rain arrives) with 2,000-3,000 gallons of slurry along with 50 units of CAN/acre a few days later.

This grass is then allowed to grow until late September/early October, when it is fed back to cows, allowing us to slow down the grazing rotation.

Daily intake of fodder

Dairy cows need 50pc of their diet in the form of roughage (this can be pushed further but stomach upsets/acidiosis etc are more likely if fodder is less than 50pc).

As a minimum every farmer should aim to secure 50pc of their fodder requirements. Supplementation with concentrates can fill the remaining 50pc and is often as economically viable as most alternative fodder sources, easier to feed and doesn't have to be paid for upfront.

A simple fodder stretcher ration available from most merchants should be adequate. Depending on location, rolled barley off the combine may be an option but you need to be set up to handle/store it.

Alternative forage sources

If, having reduced the three categories above to the minimum you find you still have less than 50pc of your winter fodder requirements, you may have to look at some fodder alternatives.

Growing rape/kale/redstart/Italian ryegrass/westerwolds could be an option for some. If sown in the next two-three weeks, a decent crop could be secured for feeding over the December to February period.

There has been a huge increase in demand for these seeds of late, and seed availability could become an issue.

These crops are better suited to tillage ground, and lower crops may be achieved on grassland farms. If you are sowing on the milking block, you should also take into account that it will be next summer before that field is grazed again.

At present, ground is most likely too hard to even consider discing/stitching etc and we will have wait for rain to soften the ground to allow the sowing of these crops.

Table 2 shows the relative cost of some of the main forage alternatives. There isn't much difference between them in terms of cost, and the option you should go with should depend on what is available locally; what you are set up to feed, store and handle; and also the cashflow implications depending on when you have to pay for each. The time to act is now. Put a plan in place as to how you are going to deal with the situation we are in.

Mentally it is very tough going on farmers. Talk to other farmers, talk to advisors, talk to family and friends. It is a difficult situation but there are options for dealing with it.

Joe Kelleher is a Teagasc advisor based in Newcastle West, Co Limerick

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