Due to the good grass growth and relatively dry weather, many dairy farmers across the country have taken full advantage of the better than normal back-end to the year.

This came as a blessing to most farmers who may have been facing a much worse fodder shortage, were it not for the extra days gained at grass this autumn.

However, a number of farmers have still identified a low, yet significant, fodder shortage.

A 10% deficit in winter feed is enough to require action. Even a small deficit in fodder can turn into a complete lack of feed for a significant duration in spring.

Attempts at late silage

Some dairy farmers have recently tried to save surplus grass – created on their own farm – as silage to feed during the winter.

In addition, they may purchase extra fodder or have out-blocks of land – owned or rented – to harvest fodder stocks from – albeit at a significant cost.

However, tillage farmers could serve – in future years – as an alternative solution to a fodder shortage problem.

Speaking during a workshop titled ‘Building fodder reserves’ at the recent Teagasc National Dairy Conference, crop specialist Ciaran Collins of Teagasc explained that engaging in this venture would allow dairy farmers to focus on their grass-based system.

In addition, it would give dairy farmers the reassurance that a tillage farmer is producing a high-quality forage crop.

Such a crop would complement their existing fodder stocks and potentially fill any gaps in fodder requirements.

Essentially, the arrangement is that a tillage farmer grows a forage crop for a dairy farmer – on contract.

“Tillage farmers have the expertise and machinery to grow and manage high-quality forage crops,” he explained.

Crop options

“Wholecrop for me offers farmers [the] most flexibility,” Ciaran said. “As a tillage grower, wholecrop offers the advantage of selling it to the local merchant if more is grown than is required.”

It was worked out during the workshop that if a dairy farm has a fodder deficit of 50t of DM, 4ha of wholecrop wheat – assuming a yield of 12.5t of DM/ha – would be enough to fill that deficit.

This was estimated to cost €150/t of DM by Ciaran. Naturally, if the yield is lower the cost will be greater.

He highlighted his concerns about maize, saying: “If I’m growing maize for a dairy farmer, I need to know by late-autumn in order to plan my rotation for next year.” To commit to this – at that time – may not suit some dairy farmers, he added.

According to Ciaran the main forage options and key points to consider are:
  • Maize – the site which the crop is grown in is key to quality;
  • Fodder beet – high-energy feed but has limited usage;
  • Wholecrop cereals – these are high-yielding and high-quality crops;
  • Grass – tillage farmers may need to have stock to maintain sward quality;
  • Brassica – is normally grazed, which requires essential infrastructure but it can be conserved as silage.

“Grass may suit, but tillage farmers would need stock themselves to maintain sward quality,” he explained.

“An agreement is essential to protect both parties,” Ciaran said. He highlighted that the key elements of an agreement are: agreed tonnage or area; payment terms; crop husbandry; and delivery date.

Ciaran also recommended that a facilitator be nominated to resolve any disputes should they arise.