Managing Through The Big Dry

Matt O’Keeffe talks to Martin Ryan at Glanbia about fodder planning and forage crops

Martin Ryan, Glanbia Technical Support manager for Feed, was a busy man when we met in mid July. Apart from the fire-fighting exercise of ensuring that the livestock in the Glanbia area were adequately fed, Martin was also endeavouring to plan ahead with farmers all the way through the winter. While immediate pressures were tending to focus farmers minds, Martin Ryan was taking a longer view: “Grass growth rates, at best, are one quarter of what is required to fully feed cows, so no matter what we do today, we are eating into the future. It is critically important to try and hold up the lactation. There is a lot milk to be produced by the spring calving herd and it's a priority to keep them milking well because, even with a lot of supplementary feeding going in, there is an economic response at this stage of the year. It is a lot easier in the dry cow period to make up a silage deficit and that is the approach that should be taken.” 

Long term fodder planning

“It is crucially important that farmers plan four to six weeks ahead right now. However, there is also a need to look forward right into the winter period. The questions they must ask includes the amount of silage that will be needed to get through the winter. Given the fact that silage is being used right now and will probably continue to be used for a considerable time yet, we need to look several months ahead and plan for the fodder deficit that will be there. Even with good rain from now on there will be a four or five-week lag period before grass kilos build up on paddocks.”

Imports not a panacea

Assuming that there will be adequate opportunities to import fodder is not realistic as Martin asserts: “The drought has affected much of western Europe so it is unlikely that there will be large surpluses of fodder available for importation. In addition, transporting bulky forages is critically expensive. Importing relatively small amounts is one thing, but it is not viable to import very large tonnages, even if it were available. Look at the figures. In the Glanbia region the estimated fodder deficit next winter will be upwards of 30 per cent. Substituting in the form of concentrates and straight feeds would take four hundred thousand tonnes. We would need to import two million tonnes of silage equivalent. That's not a realistic solution. As it stands, if a farmer has 50 per cent of his fodder requirement in store, he/she would be better managing the other 50 per cent with concentrates and straights than buying fodder from abroad. Having said that, Glanbia has imported quite a bit of alfalfa and plan for more imports in the coming weeks. That's really for use on a farm with no long stem fibre available in the diet.”

Feed choices

The straight of choice at the moment is soya hulls, the Glanbia Manager insists: “For the nature of the situation we are in, palm kernel is not a good option. It is an inconsistent feed, it is not readily available and it has a detrimental effect on the quality of butterfat. Even the New Zealanders, who traditionally use large amounts of palm kernel, are measuring fat standards and introducing rate limits for palm kernel usage in cow diets. Soya hulls are a dry, stable, high fibre, palatable product. Composition is consistent and at the moment it is readily available. The diet right now, with a serious grass deficit, will include concentrates, straights and a fibre source – bales or pit silage if necessary, and whatever grass is available.”

 Making up the lost ground

Forage crops may be sown in August, provided soil moisture levels allow germination. As to whether grass plants are dead or will regrow when the rain does come, Martin Ryan had this to say: “Our ryegrasses are very resilient. They have massive potential to regrow after the drought. The varieties available now are far superior to those that dominated the sward back in 1976, for instance.”

Cattle management

Martin's messages for drystock farming are the same as for dairy, in the main: “Any cattle that can be finished quickly should be offloaded as soon as possible. They can be fed to finish outdoors, reducing management requirements. For lighter stock and stores it's possible to replace 40 per cent of feed requirement with straight soya hulls to keep them going. If necessary their diet can be restricted a bit, because they are long stay and will gain compensatory growth when grass returns. That's provided performance is kept above maintenance. There is no benefit in going backwards, if at all possible. Some lambs are going to the factory under finished. We recommend buffering available grass with one to two kilos to finish them properly and maximise price, especially as prices have fallen significantly recently. Ewes can be restricted somewhat at this time of year.”

Supporting each other

With no end in sight in mid July, the morale of farmers was under severe pressure as Martin Ryan agreed: “The pressures are psychological as much as physical. If we could get some rain farmers will be able to see an end in sight. It might be another month of intensive buffer feeding but at least morale would lift in the expectation that the grass has started to grow. Until that happens, farmers will be under severe pressure. It's the uncertainty that is causing the most strain and planning ahead will help reduce that strain.