Alternative feeds: What are my options?

After a difficult spring, feed reserves on many farms were depleted. Drought conditions have slowed grass growth rates and many farmers are supplementing their livestock with silage and other alternative feeds.

After saving grass as silage in May and June, many farmers are now using this forage to extend the rotation length on their farms.

As next winter’s feed reserves are now being used, drystock farmers are beginning to turn their attentions to alternatives; some of these feeds are highlighted below.

Speaking at a recent fodder event in Co. Wexford, Teagasc’s Dr. Siobhan Kavanagh outlined the importance of purchasing feed on a nutritional value basis that best suits the system.

‘Avoid panic buying’

Siobhan stressed that farmers need to avoid panic buying and paying over the odds for feed that they don’t need and that it is very important to calculate what the fodder deficit is on the farm.

“It’s important not to panic buy feed because it looks like it could be good value. It has to match your system or, at least, you have to balance it up correctly with minerals and protein.

“The figure that’s most important is the percentage deficit. Is it 20%, 30% or 50%? If the deficit is less than 20%, concentrates will fill that gap very easily.

“The first question farmers need to ask themselves is: Is it a forage crop or concentrates I need? The next step to look at is the nutritional value of that feed and does it match the nutritional requirement of that animal” she added.


Wholecrop has been a hot topic of discussion in recent times. However, time is of the essence with this feed, as cereals are ripening fast across the country.

However, low grain yielding crops (1.5-2t/ac) will have very little energy in them when they are pitted, Siobhan said.

“Farmers will end up with a pit full of straw and a small bit of grain in it. Yes, it is a roughage source; but you’re going to have significant costs against that.

“It will give you roughage, but it won’t give nutritional value. Farmers will have the same harvesting costs and you’re probably going to pay over the odds for the grain.”

In addition, she said: “Good-quality winter cereal crops are not an ideal feed for dry cows. They are very high in energy and it will put too much condition on them; the nutritional value it too high.”


Over recent weeks, there has been a massive amount of hay saved and it’s a very good source of roughage. However, Siobhan warned that the DMD (dry matter digestibility) value of hay lies at approximately 63%.

“Hay is not a high-digestibility feed; it’s a maintenance feed. If you are looking at including hay in the system, it has to be for the maintenance of dry cows or to feed with a ration to young stock,” she explained.

Fodder beet

Touching on fodder beet, Siobhan said: “There will be a good bit of fodder beet available in this part of the country (Co. Wexford). Nutritionally, this is an excellent feed. However, it won’t replace forage; but it will help you stretch the forage you have.

“Again, it depends on the type of animal you are going to feed it to. It’s not a great feed for dry cows because of its mineral make up and it’s also very low in protein.”

She also outlined that it is an adequate feed for weanlings, once it is fed at low-inclusion rates and it is balanced for minerals and proteins.


Many farmers may be looking at purchasing grain direct from the combine. However, Siobhan warned: “It is important to know what the moisture content of the grain is.

“There is a huge difference in the value of grain, whether it’s 25%, 30%, 35% or 40% moisture. It then needs to be brought back to a DM (dry matter) basis, so you can compare it to other feeds,” she explained.

Image source: Shane Casey

Storing and handling facilities

A lot of the feeds mentioned above need adequate storage facilities; they may also require extra handling.

“Storage losses are a big issue, particularly with wet feeds or any feeds that are bought in; farmers are going to have storage losses,” Siobhan explained.

“If you take dried grain, you’re still going to have 2% losses. The crimped grain would generally have a loss rate of somewhere in the region of 10%. That’s a cost that needs to be factored in when you’re looking at a feed,” she concluded.