Consistent rations that optimise rumen function are the key to maximising feed efficiency, milk from forage and overall herd profitability.
Yet despite the major negative impact any variation in silage quality can have on rumen fermentation efficiency, regular silage analysis is often seen as a low priority.
According to Dr Ronald Annett, ruminant technical manager and nutritionist for McLarnon Feeds, Belfast, this is often due to the traditionally slow turnaround times when silage samples are sent off for laboratory analysis. The cost and hassle of regular sampling and testing can also be a barrier.
Widely varying silage
“It means that most silages are typically only checked once or twice each season,” he highlights. “Yet the latest data shows that key parameters like dry matter (DM) can differ by as much as 10% from the top to the bottom of the clamp, and by as much as 8% from middle to the sides.
“With similar changes seen when moving back through a clamp, the potential impact on overall winter milk output – and profitability – is huge. In a herd averaging 30 litre/day, for example, even a 2.5% reduction in silage dry matter from one day to the next can alter nutrient supply enough to cut daily yields by two litres/cow!”
One of the biggest opportunities to boost herd performance therefore comes from increasing the frequency of forage testing. And it’s now become a realistic option for many Northern Irish dairy units thanks to McLarnon Feeds’ adoption of a new NIR (Near Infrared Reflectance) technology that allows real-time, on-farm analysis of forage samples.
On-farm NIR analysis
Known as NIR4 Farm, it’s a robust handheld device that can measure the key components in grass and silage in just five minutes. Results are displayed on a small tablet – as well as uploaded to an online portal for future reference – and immediately available for ration formulation decisions and exporting into formulation software.
“We deliver nutritional advice as part of our service, and silage analysis is an essential part of that,” Dr Annett explains. “The ability to test silages more regularly and see a quick turnaround time on results really makes our lives easier.
“For example, in a scenario where a farmer is deciding which pit to open for his fresh cows, we scan the silage and can make a decision about the diet straight away.”
Precise feed management
And because results are instant, Dr Annett is finding that increasing numbers of his clients are interested in sampling more often, which can have significant benefits.
“If silage quality has improved since the last sampling, then there are costs to be saved. Maybe we can reduce concentrate levels, or perhaps feed a lower protein concentrate.
“On the other hand, if silage quality has deteriorated, we can correct the ration quickly to minimise any negative impact on milk yields, body condition or fertility,” he adds. “It means that we’re able to pick up on changes in silage quality on a monthly basis, rather than just twice a year, and allows very precise monitoring and management of the diet.
“Adding to that is the device’s ability to measure grass quality. It allows us to regularly monitor feed value during the grazing season, and advise clients on the potential impact when choosing which field to graze next.
“In the current economic climate, these are all decisions which are vital for efficiency. It’s also critical if our clients are to get the absolute best out of both the silage they’ve made and the other feeds they’ve grown or bought in.”