Land of Tulips and.… Grass??!

Apparently there is a land where the rainfall on average is similar to ours, as is the sunlight hours and temperature, and yet….heavens above they are able to produce consistently good forages. I know what you are thinking…..he’s got a young kid, probably reads to him about Narnia and is likely to not get much sleep, so day dreaming is clearly likely to be a fact. But listen up people, this is no fairy tale, this is………. Holland! Actually doesn’t sound that exciting when you say it out loud, but with all your pent up excitement now put aside, there are some very real lessons to be learned here.

As with all these things I hate it when someone else is significantly better at something. Believe me when we had a presentation over there telling us how our forages were rubbish in general compared to theirs, it was a natural reaction to stand up and say,  “but we get above average rainfall, and our soils are worse than yours and we get less heat than you, and our grass is less green….and our cows aren’t as black and white”….and then as always you realise that you are just creating excuses and missing the point. It really doesn’t matter how difficult it is for us, it is clearly not impossible for some, because there are some exceptional forage managers in the UK and not all of them are extensive grazers.

Before you put this down thinking ‘I’ve heard this all before and it is just an excuse for my nutritionist (yes that’s me!) to use to explain why he can’t get my cows to milk’, I’m going to try to give you some logical reasons why most UK forage production has gone wrong over the last few years.

Let’s set the scene. There is a pre-occupation in the industry with “£’s per”. It doesn’t matter whether it is feed, fertiliser, seed, chemicals etc, everyone wants to buy cheaply. What is cheap though, nothing is cheap if it later costs you more money than it saved you. Value is the critical word here. If I spend this, what will the return be. Most actions are quantifiable and so before you embark on any spend, you should sit down and calculate whether you are likely to get a reward for that outlay. At that point you set a goal for it to achieve over a period of time and then you check that it has achieved the target when that time is up.


The current financial crisis has forced people into some pretty desperate places, but what many have taken too far is the dramatic reduction in fertiliser that has happened and been happening over the last few years. Fundamentally, grass needs fertiliser and with bought in fertiliser feeling expensive in comparison to what we paid for it in the 90’s, then the obvious thought has been to use more slurry. This is not such a stupid idea, but as with all good ideas they have limitations.

Think about the silage analysis that we are seeing on farm in comparison to the ones from 20 years ago. On average we are seeing 4-5% lower crude proteins, with 1-2 Mega Joules and 10-15 point lower D values. Now I am not suggesting that we go back to the 150+ unit days that ICI encouraged in the 80’ and 90’s, but there is some logic to looking at why somewhere in-between is a good place to be and why the type of grass and your desired cutting periods should dictate what you do.

Most farmers are under feeding their grass and this is where more specialist help is a definite asset.  I often get told that slurry has been sampled and it was worth this much, so I don’t need to buy Nitrogen, but many of you are running using samples from last year or the year before, or from a sample dipped out of the lagoon. Actually how representative is that of what goes on the ground? What you need to do is place a bucket in the field where you are spreading that is a fair representation of the lagoon i.e probably about a third of the way through your application. Get the slurry in the bucket tested and then you can work back what fertiliser you now need to achieve the growth that you want. Slurry consistency is paramount and using bugs in the lagoon can really help.

Correct application will give you higher yields per acre and better quality. Most of the loss of performance from silage and grazing is due to the grass having run out of energy to grow before its grazed or harvested, so you lose not only protein in the plant but digestibility too. This can be anywhere up to 10 litres difference in yield per day from forage. If you want me to prove it, I can show you the maths. You only need to look at how many people have struggled with grazing this year. Low milk proteins and fats are often a reflection of the protein level consumed and the energy that is in the plant from its growth pattern.

It is (unfortunately) exactly what they are better at in Holland. Correct application of slurry and nitrogen to achieve a cut every 28-30 days, averaging 12ME, 17CP, 75+D value on analysis. Most of their base 25 litre diets have 4kg of concentrate in them, whereas we regularly have to use 7-7.5kg in this country.

We have a knowledgeable team here that can really help you assess and maximise your forage and performance. I’ve banged on for years about getting the most you possibly can out of your farm, then you can rent less ground, or grow some protein or some cereal that will mean fewer lorries coming down your drive with food that you have to pay for.

3-3.5kg of concentrate a day to prop up a diet pays for a huge amount of silage contracting bills and the small amount of N required to get higher protein silage is tiny in comparison to replacing it with bought in protein…..I’ll leave you with that thought.


Pete Davies