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Forage management: Maximising current and future resources


With forage in tight supply this autumn, national seeds manager Nigel Walley looks at what can be done on farm to help alleviate the situation.

Nationwide, forage supplies are believed to be 20-30% below normal, and up to 40% in certain areas, following the exceptionally dry summer






Image: Some maize crops have been hit hard by common smut

Common Smut

In the short term, eking out forage supplies will be the order of the day. Looking to the longer term, there may still be time to establish new grass leys this autumn to help boost supplies early next season and beyond.


Making best use of forage

It is worth taking some extra time this year to work out exactly how much forage is in the clamp, and how that compares with livestock requirements. 

As part of that, it is crucial that representative samples of forage are analysed accurately.  For example, grass and silage dry matters are higher than usual this year, which might mean supplies can be stretched a bit further without affecting performance.

As well as suffering drought stress some maize crops have also been affected by common smut this year.
We’ve not seen this amount since 2006 – in one field in Cheshire all the cobs had been replaced by the characteristic tumour-like white or grey galls.

Hard-hit crops will have much lower starch and protein levels, leaving ME as the primary feed value.

The best forage should be fed to milkers or finishing cattle.

Young stock will do well enough on a straw and concentrate diet – in fact, straw is no bad thing as it helps condition the rumen, raising feed intakes in later life when it really matters.

Many people have sown stubble turnips, forage rape or kale this autumn to provide extra feed.

To minimise waste, introduce cattle or sheep slowly via strip grazing. This will avoid excessive trampling and, provided there is an alternative grass source, will give stock time to get used to the bitter taste of these brassica crops, rather than being put off by it.


Establishing Leys

The early maize harvest and relatively warm soils means we still have a drilling window for hardier ryegrasses. Italian ryegrass, or hybrid ryegrasses where a longer ley of four to five years is the aim, would be my choice.

The latter should preferably have a high degree of Italian characteristics (faster germination and establishment). There has been a lot of talk about using Westerwolds as a catch crop after maize, for very early spring growth, but these are less winter hardy so might be best avoided at this stage, or at least limited to 30% of a blend.

The wider drilling window could be doubly useful where maize crops were hit by common smut.

The disease is soil-borne, but needs certain climatic conditions (dry/cool) that put crops under stress to trigger it, so it may not recur in a following maize crop.

However, where it has been evident I would advise introducing a break such as grass for a couple of years at least. Italian/hybrid ryegrass seed will germinate and establish where soil temperatures are as low as 6ºC, although a few degrees more is preferable.

At this time of year, I’d prefer to see stubbles lightly cultivated rather than direct drilled, to encourage faster early growth.

The value of planned reseeding and rotation has been obvious this season.

Leys less than five years old have survived the drought better than older swards as they kept growing for longer and recovered faster, resulting in a really marked increase in production. In difficult times, reseeds really pay for themselves.


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