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More farmers are growing high protein fodder crops to ease cashflow pressures, improve milk quality and reduce their environmental impact. Why home-grown high protein forage is a winner

• Helps to reduce bought-in feed

• Saves money and eases cashflow

• Good for farm and environment

More farmers are growing high protein fodder crops to ease cashflow pressures, improve milk quality and reduce their environmental impact.

Maximising the value of home-grown forage is key, says Duncan Hendry, grass and small seeds specialist at Cope Seeds and Grain. The case for high protein home-grown forage is getting stronger as costs continue to rise, he explains.

“Farmers are all striving to achieve the best quality forage to support their milk from forage ratios. This means that they have to constantly improve their grass leys, either by reseeding or by overseeding existing leys.

“Alternatives are maize or wholecrop cereals for energy supply. However, with rapidly rising costs of protein we must look to increasing home grown proteins rather than relying on bought in protein whether as compound feeds or as straights.”

Positive results

Mr Hendry says he is seeing positive results from alternatives like arable silage. Excellent yields can be obtained within 13-16 weeks and the silage used as part of a mixed forage diet with pea plants used to increase the protein content.

“They can be under sown with a new grass ley to further maximise land use. The resultant crop can be baled or clamped and should produce around 12-15 tonnes fresh weight per acre with a typical analysis.”

Grass leys are being employed for increasing protein levels in forage and red clover is generally used for cutting leys and white in grazing leys. Lucerne is also being more readily used, says Mr Hendry.

“It has the potential to yield 10-15t/ha of dry matter, it has a five-year persistence, is highly digestible, rich in trace elements and is an excellent source of fibre/ It will also fix nitrogen too. Lupins are also a high protein option, and can be combined and crimped.”

Derbyshire farmer David Dilks has 270 dairy cows plus followers – and keeps all the beef animals for fattening. He is growing alternative, mixed forage crops, generally sticking to spring crops with lots of underseeding.

Milk from forage

“Approximately half our milk comes from forage. We grow arable silage mixtures, which are usually oats and peas or barley and peas, undersown with a red clover rich grass for silage or a grazing lay.

“This is then cut just as the peas flower and pod up and, weather permitting, left to wilt for 24 hours, then clamped leaving a grass lay for grazing or cutting mid-August.”

Mr Dilks says he grows three crops in one – a mixture of barley, peas and oats. This provides the farm with the option of a slightly more mature clamped whole crop. Alternatively, he combines and crimps it with the green straw baled and wrapped, depending on the year.

“This is undersown with low-rate grass seed for green cover overwinter and green manure. I have also dabbled in lucerne. Ultimately it benefits the bottom line too because we buy in less imported protein just through mixed forages.

Somerset farm manager Ryan Sloman-Brown, of Coombe Farm, Crewkerne, is among those farmers growing high protein fodder crops. “It means we’re buying in fewer inputs and saving money,” he says.

Mr Sloman-Brown manages 800 dairy cows over three units averaging 8,200 litres per cow per year, and is committed to becoming self-sustaining. “Growing our own forage means we aren’t reliant on the straights market and it gives us more flexibility.

Straight to clamp

“We grow red clover, winter wheat, and winter oats/triticale, as well as peas and barley together, then we overwinter with stubble turnip and forage rape, and we grow mustard as well and mulch it in the spring as a green manure.”

The peas and barley are undersown with red clover. The peas are high in protein and the barley makes a good companion crop. Combinable peas are used because they’re shorter, which helps with harvesting.

“We cut them together in August with a forage harvester and this mixture goes straight into the clamp. “Generally, we have to compromise between the barley being too green and the peas being so ripe they drop.”

Red clover undersown in the peas and barley is cut again again in September.  Wheat is crimped so and there are no additional inputs.

Usually, Mr Sloman-Brown sows red clover in the spring so it’s cleaner. “It’s a really good protein source but you can’t sow it for too many consecutive years, after eight years we break it with lucerne.

“We’ve played around with lucerne and we think it’s better on its own than in a mix, and we have found that layering it in the clamp is best.”