The climate is keeping us on our toes and this year (2023) has been no exception. It calls for flexibility and agility when it comes to growing forage crops. Limagrain’s forage crop manager John Spence sows some seeds of ideas on future proofing home grown feed supplies going forward.
“We’re ending the year with decent stores of grass and maize silage, but this doesn’t tell the full story,” says John Spence. “A cold late spring delayed grass growth, then for most grass silage making started well, until heavy rain arrived.
Hot and dry conditions weren’t as extreme as 2022, but some were affected with poor grass growth, then some respite and good grass growth through a mild autumn until heavy rain put some areas under water at worst and at best caused the late sowing of forage catch crops which will certainly hamper their yield and quality.
So farmers are faced with balancing more extreme weather conditions and the drive to improve sustainability and economic viability by producing more feed value from home grown forages.
“Marrying the two is quite a challenge,” adds Mr Spence.
“Agility and flexibility are key when it comes to planning. Avoid planning everything in stone and being too rigid with the cropping.”
The dairy system will determine forage options, with more alternatives typically possible in grazing herd situations. “A herd housed full time will usually rely on conserved high quality silages. “This has to remain the priority,” says Mr Spence. “But introducing forages like fodder beet and forage rye can really boost output from homegrown forages, as well as opting for higher production grass seed mixtures and clovers.
“Grazed herds can consider kale too, and some brassicas like Skyfall that ‘bounces back’, in effect giving two grazing crops, through summer which can take the pressure off the grass.”
Fodder beet, though, has been used in dairy cow diets for many years in areas where it can be grown on farm or locally on contract.
“This is a high energy crop, highly digestible and ‘enjoyed’ by dairy cows. We’ve tested a range of varieties in our own UK farm trials for more than 10 years and yields are consistently reliable, even in dry hot summers,” he adds.
“And new modern varieties are out-performing some of the older fodder beets. Limagrain trials consistently show the variety Fosyma to have the best dry matter yield at 14% above the control variety Magnum, and 5% above its closest rival Brick.”
Fodder beet’s feed value at 78% digestibility and 13MJ/kg of dry matter is a valuable addition to any dairy ration.
Kale might have been out of fashion. “But not anymore,” adds Mr Spence. “Here again, new varieties with improved feed value have brought the crop back into the spotlight.”
He highlights Bombardier – a relatively new kale variety with a nutritious stem and leaf with 72% digestibility in UK trials and 17% crude protein It’s sown between April and June so it can follow first cut silage and provide a valuable break crop in the grass rotation.
“A kale crop can slot into the plan for many grazing herds. It’s fast-growing so cattle can strip graze it as a buffer feed in mid-summer to take the pressure off the grass.
But it has a long shelf-life too, so it’s a useful crop for youngstock and dry cows in autumn and winter. In either situation it can be used as a break crop and followed with a grass reseed. Break crops between grass crops are increasingly important in breaking the pest cycle and improving productivity of grass leys.”
Forage rye has been particularly popular this autumn – 2023, with crops following harvest or early maturing maize varieties. It can be sown until late October and is ready for cutting or grazing in early spring, even before Italian ryegrass.
A crude protein content of 12% and an ME of 10MJ/kg DM makes it an ideal forage for late lactation or dry cows, or youngstock. And once finished, the field can go back into maize or a spring reseed.
“A crop of rye will provide a valuable feed to eke out silages and it’s also a great crop to mop up residual nutrients and maintain soil health. The only caveat maybe sowing in a very wet autumn, but most farmers were in time this year, as the first half of autumn was warm and dry. So again, a flexible approach is needed and the will to act if conditions are right.”
Grass is king
Grass is the most important forage for most dairy farmers, and increasing its productivity and feed value should be on-going. This includes regular reseeding and taking advantage of improved grass seed mixtures and always selecting a grass seed mixture to suit the system and purpose of the crop, as well as the growing conditions and soil type.
“There are new varieties, improved grass seed mixtures and enhancements to match changing conditions. So farmers should seek advice and look for mixtures with proven trial results and good performance on UK farms and be discerning in their choices,” adds Mr Spence.
Limagrain trials in 2020 highlight the benefit of reseeding and of selecting proven mixtures. Table 1 highlights the productivity of a one year old ley and a four year old ley. The additional 45% of energy produced by the new sward was equivalent to more than 6,000 litres of milk (assuming 5.3MJ/litre).
Age of Sward (Years)
Benefit of New Ley
1st Cut DM yield (t/ha)
ME (MJ/kg DM)
ME yield (MJ/ha)
Source: Limagrain UK Trials, May 2020
“The additional energy yield value from younger leys will increase the proportion of milk yield from home-grown forage, reduce bought-in feed costs and this will justify the cost of the reseed. Depending on the age and quality of the ley, estimates suggest the additional yield in year one of a reseed will cover its cost.”
Trials have also demonstrated the benefits of improved mixtures with proven feed values. LGAN is the accreditation given to LG mixtures that meet the company’s combined yield and feed value criteria, and table 2 shows the performance range at first cut of the one-year-old mixtures on trial.
“The best performing mixture at first cut was LGAN Quality Silage, which produced more than 7t/DM of 12.5ME silage. The trial year, 2020, was particualrly dry, so these results demonstrate the big gains that can be made by using high-feed-value mixtures.”
DM yield (t/ha)
ME yield (MJ/ha)
Stock up on clover
A forage outlook for 2024 wouldn’t be complete without highlighting the benefits of clover in grass leys.
“Any new reseed with clover in the mix or overseeding a ley with clover is eligible for an annual payment of £102 a hectare under the new SFI action NUM2 (Legumes on improved grassland),” says Mr Spence.
“This more than pays for the seed, and it brings all the benefits in soil health, nitrogen fixing and feed value. And in mid-summer, the clover provides good feed value when perennial ryegrass growth slows down.”
A lot of focus is also being placed on multispecies leys, with sustainability schemes encouraging dairy farmers to integrate them into their systems. “There are payments available under the new SFI scheme for sowing multispecies leys which will be worth investigating in the forage planning for 2024.
“There is a lot of considerations and it’s worth having an open mind to new ideas and options.”
FORAGE PLANNING POINTERS
Plan to increase output from homegrown forages
Throw the net out wider – look at all the options
Have a flexible plan and be agile to adapt to the season’s weather conditions
Have a robust and productive rotation for the farm – no one rotation fits all
Use a forage break crop between grass reseeds
Look at improved forage crop varieties with better protein and energy contents
Clover in grass leys is a must
Improving grass quality and feed value is on-going
Carefully select grass seed mixtures with proven feed value
Sowing a forage crop and taking a “cereal break” is a win-win!
Give the arable crop rotation a break and sow a forage crop this autumn, to help achieve better weed control and boost home grown feed supplies. Mixed cereal and livestock units are encouraged to think about growing forages on some of their arable land, as this will help weed control by breaking the life cycles of some damaging weeds and diseases.
Forage crops – and any grazing livestock – add organic matter to the soils, which is especially valuable in nutrient depleted soils. Soil structure and condition warrants attention on many arable units, and rotations that include forage crops are more sustainable in the long run.
Forage crops, such as; fast-growing brassica and root crops, and short-term grass leys, can be sown post-harvest to give a much-needed break in the cereal rotation, as well as providing a valuable feed crop.
Roots and brassicas can be grazed-off ahead of a spring drilled cereal crop, or ahead of a grass reseed. Leaving a grass ley down for two to three years will also help break the blackgrass cycle.
Interval Rape Kale Hybrid
There are plenty of high feed value varieties to choose, that can improve livestock growth rates and performance.
Our recommendations are:
Samson stubble turnip – for grazing October onwards
Interval rape-kale hybrid – high protein leafy forage
Meatmaker and Autumn Keep brassica mixtures – contain stubble turnips, forage rape and Kale. The high protein content of both forage rape and Kale complements the high energy stubble turnip bulbs to provide an excellent, well balanced winter feed.
Fodder crop menu for finishing lambs
What choices are there for sheep producers who want to mitigate the risk of a grass shortage and have a fresh high feed value forage to hand when finishing lambs later this year?
What choices are there for sheep producers who want to mitigate the risk of a grass shortage and have a fresh high feed value forage to hand when finishing lambs later this year? According to Limagrain’s Martin Titley, there are plenty of options.
And not only do they offer a low-cost forage option, but they can also provide a break crop after grass leys or cereals.
“There are a number of good fodder crops that arable or mixed farms could consider this spring, instead of sowing cereals,” says Mr Titley. “A lot of arable units are facing big acreages for spring crops. Sowing a break crop on some fields might not be a bad option; maybe where there’s been a blackgrass problem or as an option to break the disease cycle.
Stubble turnips are an ‘old favourite’ and lost popularity as rotations changed and other options became more fashionable. But they’re now back in favour. “Arable and sheep producers alike recognise that they suit practically any sheep production system – they’re incredible versatile,” says Mr Titley.
He says that the real attraction for this crop is that it’s fast growing and for some the flexible sowing time is attractive. It can be sown in May and June, after first-cut silage, to get a bite in early August and September. “This is good on units where grazing can burn off later in the season. It acts as an ‘insurance’ crop against a dry summer and allows producers to finish lambs on a low-cost forage crop.”
Most stubble turnip crops are sown after cereal harvest – at the end of July or beginning of August – and are then ready for grazing between 12 and 14 weeks later.
“They’re ideal for plugging the forage gap between September and the end of December,” he says, adding that this year, being very mild, farmers have grazed them well into February. “This isn’t the norm though and can’t be taken for granted.”
Forage rape and hybrids -which are typically a cross between rape and kale – are becoming a ‘go to’ choice for finishing lambs.
“These forage rape brassicas are particularly popular because of their flexible sowing dates,” adds Mr Titley. “They can be sown from May until late August and used as summer grazing or sown into winter barley stubble in late July.
An easy to grow crop also makes these hybrid brassicas popular. They benefit from farmyard manure or slurry pre sowing, or an application of 60kg to 90kg of nitrogen with 25kg each of potassium and phosphate per hectare.
“And they’re fast-growing so ready to graze in 12 to 14 weeks. Sown in May, they give a bite at the end of August or early September which is ideal for finishing lambs on many farms.”
But the crop can be used across winter too and will keep its leafiness in colder conditions. “Forage rape and the hybrid crops are winter hardy and are capable of carrying stock well into February and even early March. But it must be grazed before flowering as once it starts to flower, it loses its nutritional value.”
Modern rape kale hybrids offer high feed values. “Take one of the latest, Unicorn, launched in 2019. This fast-growing leafy catch crop offers energy values of 11 MJ per kilogramme of dry matter, producing 49,438 MJ per hectare, and a dry matter content of 12.4%. This is a lot of feed value from 12 to 14 weeks of growth.”
Both stubble turnips and forage rape hybrids provide a good break, helping to build fertility back into the soil and to control both broadleaved and grass weeds. They can be followed with a spring grass reseed or a spring cereal crop.
“A mix of the two in one cropping is popular too,” he adds. The stubble turnip ‘bulbs’ provide a high energy crop, whereas the brassica hybrids, such a forage rape, pack a protein punch. This offers a more balanced forage mix in one crop.
“In freezing and snowy conditions, the forage rape ‘stands up’ and creates a canopy over the stubble turnips which generally keeps them fresher for longer.”
Mr Titley says that the popularity of swedes is declining as more producers discover the benefits of stubble turnips and forage rape. “But we’re still seeing the old favourite swede variety; Invitation and our Massif traditional turnip take their well-earned place on some sheep units.
“These crops grow well in autumn so they’re ideal where cereal harvest is later; which is often why we see them grown in Scotland. They provide a high energy, high dry matter winter feed that can be grazed from the end of November through to February with relatively low production costs.”
Herbal leys are getting more popular for grazing sheep and finishing lambs. The perennial mixtures typically persist for three or four years and comprise species including chicory and plantain, as well as traditional grasses such as meadow fescue and sainfoin.
“The species are deep rooting and they continue to thrive in dry conditions – either during drought or towards the back-end of the grazing season, when grass may be struggling,” says Mr Titley.
These mixtures really come into their own on chalky, light and free-draining soils. They’re also rich in minerals, compared to other forage crops.
Sheep farmers on or close to EFA land, which is now subject to the ‘greening’ rules, cannot leave land fallow during the winter – a green cover crop must be sown and must remain in place until January 12 each year.
“A mixture of forage rye Humbolt and vetch, which can be sown as late as September, is a good option,” says Mr Titley. “It’s a reliable feed for both ewes and finishing lambs to graze, up until April, if required.”
He adds that herbal leys are becoming more predominant in arable farming areas. “Sheep and arable farmers can work together on this. There are also soil health and fertility benefits to be had by arable producers who graze livestock on a proportion of their land each year.”