Alternative Winter Forages for a Variable Climate
A Selection Guide for Victorian Dairy Farmers
Forage oats on a frosty morning
On dairy farms forages are thought about in a very different way today than they might have been in the past. Forages (pastures and crops) can play a key role in helping to manage seasonal variability and fill gaps in the feed budget.
The Victorian dairy industry has always needed to deal with seasonal variability but with increased intensity of farming, together with volatility in milk price and input costs, there is an increasing emphasis on the need for adaptive strategies. The last decade of extreme weather in many areas of Victoria has highlighted just how variable the seasons can be. Feed is the largest cost on a dairy farm and the growing conditions are a major variable. This makes selecting the most appropriate mix of forages and adaptive feeding strategies very important for dairy farms.
The aim of this guide is to discuss the role that forages can play on dairy farms to help manage climate variability and risk, as well as help the reader to select the right forages for their unique situation.
Feed portfolio approach
Forages are essentially grown on dairy farms as a feed source for the cows. They are just one of many options, albeit a major source, available to feed the cows.
A portfolio approach to feeding basically describes the need to have multiple options for filling the herd’s feed requirements. The farm portfolio of feeds will change over time. Adaptation of the feedbase has a large bearing on the viability of the business.
What impact can the climate have on your feed portfolio?
Have you ever tried to estimate how much home grown feed you grow in a good season compared to a poor season?
Having a greater understanding of the seasonal influences can help with risk management on farm.
A shortfall in home grown feed can be offset by purchasing feed, but may not be cost effective. You may wish to offset some of this with home grown fodder reserves (e.g. silage). Maybe part of the shortfall can be buffered through the use of nitrogen fertiliser or strategic use of forage crops. Perhaps you have an out paddock that has, in many cases, some untapped potential to grow more if need be. Agistment is another option.
Any part of the feed portfolio can be adjusted to help smooth out the effect of seasonal variability to some extent. It is a matter of working out what adjustment best suits, considering things such as seasonal forecasts, price, availability, diet balance, risk and ease of management. Take each year on its merits, but also have a longer term strategy.
The role forages can play on a dairy farm
Cows strip grazing a turnip crop
Essentially forages are nearly always grown on a dairy farm to provide a feed source for the cows. This may be from direct grazing by the cows or to conserve the fodder and feed it back to the cows at another stage. However different forages often change the;
- Quality of feed provided to the cows
- Quantity of feed provided to the cows from the same area
- Timing of when the feed is provided to the cows
- Expense of the feed provided to the cows
- Risk of achieving desired yields & quality and health risks to cows
- Ease of management (to grow, manage and feed to cows)
The majority of farms are, for good reasons, going to continue to use pasture for the main grazing option for their herd. This pasture will normally be ryegrass based but may be another species depending on the individual farmers’ preferences or where the farm is geographically located. This still normally allows a percentage of the farm to be sown down to alternative forage options. This area can be managed strategically to help cope with climate variability. An examples of how and when alternative forage options can be used strategically to manage risk and climate variability is sowing a late autumn/winter sown species in response to a late break; once the season moves into May, sowing ryegrass can mean waiting a long time until the first grazing. Sowing a species such as some cereal varieties could provide you with a grazing option sooner and a much greater amount of winter feed from that area. However, spring production also needs to be considered.
What are the options for sowing in autumn?
There are a number of different species that could be selected to be sown in autumn or winter on Victorian dairy farms. To help narrow down the species, and then which cultivar within the species that would best suit any given paddock on your farm, thought needs to be given to a number of different factors. Some of the main factors are:
- End purpose of the species e.g. lots of high quality grazing; winter feed; large bulk of feed to conserve
- Water availability
- Soil type/ paddock layout e.g. free draining, good irrigation layout
- Fertility of paddock
- How the forage crop fits into whole feed system e.g. already a large area of cereals sown; too far away from dairy to graze with milking cows; close to the water wheel and easy to irrigate
- Risk e.g. seasonal forecast, and the likelihood of wet/dry autumn/winter/spring
- Alternatives for filling the feed gap e.g. purchase feed or agistment.
- When the feed is needed e.g. Perennials to provide early autumn feed while annuals are still establishing
Sulla in flower
There are many options available to consider when sowing in autumn. There is however no new, magic “silver bullet” out there, just steady improvements. Each region will vary in climatic conditions and soil type, so care must be taken in choosing the correct species and cultivar for the specific locality. The more common options sown by farmers are:
- Annual ryegrass
- Italian ryegrass
- Perennial ryegrass
- Hybrid ryegrass
- White and sub clover
- Forage cereals – wheat, barley, triticale, oats & rye corn
- Other clovers e.g. Persian (shaftal), balansa, berseem, strawberry
- Herbs – chicory and plantain
- Fescue – winter and summer active
While on most dairy farms the use of traditional pasture species will still play the most important role in meeting the herd's feed requirements, the use of alternative forages could help manage some of the risks associated with climate variability. Their use can help manage;
- When feed is available e.g. cereals for more early autumn and winter feed
- Feed quality of conserved fodder e.g. legumes for hay
- Amount of feed conserved e.g. cereals to produce a bulk of conserved feed, or brassicas to provide direct grazing options when conserved feed would normally be fed out
- Risk of dry conditions e.g. cereals grown in winter/spring to provide more reliable yields
- Potential to grow and supply more and better quality feed from out paddocks/lease blocks
It is important to remember that making changes to the forage system will impact on other areas of the farm system. So any decisions made should involve a great deal of thought. The more options chosen the more complex it will be to manage, which means it will be much harder to manage the farm well.
For the full version of this guide either electronic or a hard copy please contact Frank Mickan DPI Ellinbank via email, firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone (03)5624 2259.