Seeking expert advice and changing what has always been the ‘norm’ on-farm can be daunting for many farmers. But for Margo and Willie Webster, it has inspired the start of positive change.
Margo Webster, who farms 238 Holstein Friesian cows year-round with her father, Robert Mitchell, decided to contact Alltech to seek advice about their silage-making.
“Alltech and I had an in-depth conversation over the phone at the beginning of May, discussing the measures we could take and the likely issues that would affect quality,” explains Margo. “They followed this up with an email to set out what we discussed and also agreed to an on-farm visit to assess last year’s silage, so we could focus on actions we could take to improve this year’s crop.
”Margo’s father, Robert, had made tower silage until 2012 and the techniques necessary to make a high-quality feedstuff in a silo differ markedly to the correct approach for clamp silage. She felt the family and the staff at Drumdreel would benefit from seeking expert advice.
During the half-day visit on the last day of May, Alltech spent time examining the silage made the previous year to identify issues that might affect quality.
“After last year, where the feed value of the crop was reasonably high, but there was much lower volume than hoped for, this year we were looking for a balance of bulk against quality,” says Margo.
“As part of our Alltech Navigate visit, Alltech carried out density testing on last year’s silage, and this showed the density was twice as high in the middle of the pit than at the sides. They provided invaluable advice as to how we should lift and compact the grass, urging us to create a concave pit this year by building up the side of the pit and then filling the middle.
“We were advised to fill the length of the pit in layers of approximately 15 centimetres and consolidating these rather than filling in sections from the back as we had done before.”
As well as providing advice to Margo, Willie and Robert, Alltech also spent time with the tractor drivers explaining the nature of the problem to them and offering pointers as to how the silage could be improved.
“Our tractor men have been here longer than us, so it was important we brought them with us when changing our approach to silage-making,” Margo says. “Alltech was very good at listening to their concerns and could give them advice on how to fill the pit based on scientific and practical evidence.
“They showed the drivers the samples of silage and the density test results and demonstrated that, where the silage was more consolidated, the quality was better. The drivers saw the proof and so were willing to take the recommendations on board.”
Mitigating effects of the cold, wet weather to ensure the silage crop was the best it could be was key. The couple were advised to use an additive that would cope with low sugars due to cold weather and to aim to cut earlier in future years.
“In early June, we rang Alltech again for advice on how much wet, soil-contaminated silage we should dump,” Margo continues. “The first cut was eventually completed mid-June by bailing what would not fit in the full-to-bursting silage clamps.”
The family grows around 100 hectares (250 acres) of spring barley, around half of which is fed whole crop as part of the total mixed ration (TMR) to the cows and the remainder is sold for malting if it meets the required nitrogen specification.
As well as reiterating the pointers about clamping the whole crop, Alltech advised there may be issues with how the whole crop was mixed in the ration.
“We noticed inconsistencies in the dung, and so Alltech suggested we contact InTouch to discuss the way we were mixing the ration,” Margo explained. “During the phone call, the InTouch feeding specialist recommended we change the order the feed was placed in the wagon.
“They suggested putting the whole crop in last, which would allow a better mix of the feed and help prevent the cows sorting the ration. Some of our cows were picking to look for the blend, and this meant they were not getting a consistent ration throughout the 24-hour period.
“Since we have changed this, we have noticed an improvement in the dung consistency. Even though we have ample trough space for the cows, we suspect certain cows were able to sort through and eat more of the concentrate.”
Several areas were also examined where undetected issues might be affecting business performance. Water trough space was highlighted as one area for improvement. Still, Margo believes, despite the figures indicating there may be a shortfall of space, it is unlikely to be a limiting factor.
“Our troughs are spring-fed, so we invested in a pump to ensure the troughs fill very quickly when several cows drink at once. We never see queues at the troughs, so we believe the cows all have adequate access to fresh water,” she says.
Margo and Willie hope it is the start of a journey to revisit areas highlighted in the report to drive improved margins, such as elements of cow health, as possible areas for attention.
“Transition cows and youngstock are things we would like to look at in the future,” says Willie. “Silage is the key issue for us at the moment, so we have chosen to address this now, but we hope to work with Alltech going forward to look at these elements in more depth.
“We have bought into the approach, and we have adopted Alltech’s recommendations from start to finish, and we are confident we will reap the rewards. Alltech provided the science and the evidence so we could convince the rest of our team to tackle the hidden waste we had accepted in the past.”
Looking ahead, the couple is confident of more site visits in the future and will soon focus on opening the pit and carrying out some more density testing and comparing the different areas.
“Having someone else there to ask the questions meant we were focusing on areas that we perhaps already knew we should be doing something about,” says Margo. “It was often simple things, but it prompted us to take action.”
- The milking herd of 238 pedigree Holstein Friesians is entirely closed, and the milk is sold to Mullerfor Sainsbury’s.
- The herd is year-round calving; the milking herd is housed 365 days a year in a state-of-the-art new-build facility.
- Mitchell (Drumdreel) Partners rear their own replacements, and around 280 followers are kept on the farm at any one time, together with about 30 bull calves.
- Average yield is 9,800+ litres/cow/year, fat content is 3.77% and protein is 3.44%
- Feed conversion efficiency is currently 1.4, TMR cost per kilogram of dry matter intake (DMI) is 20p/kilogram and somatic cell count is 165k.
- Drumdreel Farm is near Strathmiglo, Fife, and extends to 243 hectares (600 acres).
- Of this acreage, approximately 101 hectares (250 acres) is temporary grass, with two fields of permanent pasture.
- A further 101 hectares (250 acres) of spring barley is grown, plus 40 hectares (100 acres) of potatoes.
- Robert Mitchell moved to Drumdreel Farm when he was two, in 1945. Robert and wife Betty were initially tenants but bought the farm in 2009.
- Margo has lived at the farm all her life but began taking a more active role in 2008.
- Her husband, Willie, is a former secondary deputy headteacher but took early retirement two years ago to work on the farm.