Livestock farmers are being told to plan to prevent long-term forage shortages following one of the wettest winters on record.

Mole Valley Farmers said farmers should measure and monitor forage stock and consider alternative cropping options this spring to safeguard feed for the coming winter.

Mole Valley Farmers nutritionist and technical product manager, Dr Kerensa Hawkey, and head of grassland and forage agronomy, Lisa Hambly, said the situation is a dire one.

Hambly said that, with only seven dry days since the beginning of December, farmers’ ability to carry out their fieldwork has had a massive impact on forage availability, with many looking to fill the gap over the next month before turnout.

Hambly and Hawkey urged all farmers to measure stocks by taking the length, width, and height of the clamp to establish the volume, and then sampling the silage to get the dry matter.

From this, farmers can work out how many tonnes of fresh weight are available, and by dividing that by how many tonnes a day are being used, will indicate the number of feed days left.

“Don’t just count the dairy cows; what about youngstock, dry cows and those few beef cows in the other shed? If you can reduce those animals, that’s less mouths to feed,” Hawkey said.

With crop yields expected to be down and the quantity and quality of first cut silage looking variable, farmers are advised to take action to safeguard adequate forage stocks for the winter ahead.

“A lot of autumn crops didn’t manage to get in the ground, and we’ve been late getting into the spring, so people might want to think about putting an extra field into maize because that’s one way of getting a lot of high dry matter yield and good quality energy pretty quickly,” Hambly said.

First cut

Hambly and Hawkey also warned farmers that first-cut silage quality may not be where it should be, with possible fermentation difficulties due to low sugar levels and soil contamination.

“Fresh grass testing has highlighted many samples with low sugar levels. We’re seeing a massive range in pre-cutting analysis from about 5% to 12% on a dry matter basis in terms of sugar,” Hawkey said.

“We don’t want it lower than 10. The fibre content of those samples is also running higher than we like, and I’m not sure if it’s going to come down enough for where we’d like it to be.”

The experts alerted farmers to the risk of soil contamination when taking the first cut.

“Many farmers haven’t been able to roll fields because it’s been too wet, so the soil levels could be higher than you think,” Hambly said.

“A challenge with some of the older leys is there could be a lot of dead material at the bottom of the sward.

“If you cut too low, that will be taken into the clamp, and there’s the risk of soil contamination.”

Hambly said lifting the cutting height could be massively beneficial this year— between 5-6cm for standard leys, then 7-9cm for hybrids or new leys.

“Also, think about your chop length and how well it will compact in the clamp,” she said.

“Speak to your contractor, tell them exactly what you want in advance and have a plan. Fresh grass testing will help tell you when the grass is ready to be cut.”

To maximise fermentation in the clamp, the experts also suggested using a silage additive.

“Whatever you can do to help achieve a good fermentation will pay dividends,” Hawkey said.