Pete’s Ponderings – Goodbye 2017

Goodbye, 2017….where did that year go!? I have to say that although not financially tough as such due to milk price rises, it has still been one of the tougher years to manage cows over the last 20 years. Cast your mind back to the beginning of the year and predominantly dry weather although the winter and a mild April meant that we saw many people taking first cuts early. With grass at almost optimal quality things looked good for outright production from forage. As we all know Mother Nature dealt us a swift clip round the ear though just to remind us of our position in the pecking order.

If you think about it, it is no wonder that achieving the levels of output that we all hoped for became very difficult. From extreme heat stress through June and into July, followed by persistently wet and humid weather, grass quality deteriorated both for cutting and grazing and cows housed up early in sheds that were invariably too warm. Altogether that stress period lasted over 5 months. We rarely have such a prolonged period of pressure and the after effects of that have been varied, but often detrimental to outright performance.

So why did it affect performance? Peak and fresh cows are most susceptible to stress, closely followed by dry cows and so although we often have 1 or 2 consecutive pressure months we rarely have 5 on the trot. Effectively this knocked cows off-peak and when you get fresh animals down on production it has a cumulative effect on total output, which becomes amplified by the number of months that the stress factor lasts for.

I am a big fan of multicut systems. They definitely produce you more dry matter yield and greater yield potential, providing that you really consider what you are trying to achieve and why. There has been some advice out there saying cut early in the day and pick it up within 24 hours to achieve optimum quality and minimal losses in the field. The theory is completely correct, but there are some distinct caveats to remember.

If you are harvesting young grass below 30DM(dry matter) then you are likely to have acid loading which can be extreme with little buffering from forage NDF as they tend to be pretty low in young grass. This ultimately has a negative effect on intake, which is completely the opposite of what you are trying to achieve. Interestingly, from my point of view, some of those wetter first cuts fed very well if they were opened within a couple of weeks of ensiling, as they had not had time to build lactic acid levels yet. The ones we opened late summer or autumn, have required heavy buffering to prevent large milk drops. The fact that many of these clamps slumped just added to the acid loading.

Alongside these weather-related issues, we have had a very unusual situation with the speed of protein degradation in grass silages. Normally, high protein early first cuts give up the majority of their protein very quickly, probably around 70-75%, but this year we have had a large number of clamps that are more like 5-10% fast degrading protein. This has meant that rumen function can be compromised due to lack of fast degrading protein. This is very unusual and has meant that many diets required ingredients that we normally wouldn’t need to use in grass-based systems.

Fortunately, we have worked our way through most of these issues and cows calving in now have had good consistent dry cow nutrition through the far-off period, instead of being exposed to poor quality back-end grass that caused weight loss and dropped peak performance.

Going forward, we must take on board the lessons from this year and make sure that we make attempts to avoid doing the same this year. Cut grass frequently, but get it dry. If cows need to be housed early or during the summer, make sure that you have made efforts to ventilate the shed the best you can, that there is plenty of water and access to it. Don’t leave far-off dry cows out in poor grass conditions. Most of these issues are manageable if we have a plan and that must involve having an end goal too. Wishing you a really strong and successful 2018.