Organic • Low input • Agroecology

The glory of grass – Reflections on the SOLID Dairy Conference

If you have children, you have no doubt been on the receiving end of many a “God, my parents are thick” moment. Sitting in the plenary session of the ‘Sustainable, Organic and Low Input Dairy (SOLID)’ conference last month, I had cause to reflect on one such moment. For reasons that now escape me, my then 7-year-old daughter and I were talking about what cows eat. I had barely started on the ingredients list of a modern dairy ration when she cut me off with a particularly withering look. “Dad,” she said, “you’ve got that wrong. Cows eat grass. Everyone knows that!”.

Well, it seems that after decades of feeding cattle everything under the sun, the dairy experts are coming round to her way of thinking. With the cost of feed ingredients (both monetary and environmental) going ever upwards, and the milk price ever downwards, the case for increasing milk from forage has strengthened to the point where it is practically cast iron. According to Sinclair Mayne of AFBI Northern Ireland achieving it is largely a question of improving soil management, taking advantage of recent developments in grass and clover breeding and a flexible approach to grazing, supported by a farmer led knowledge exchange programme. All of which, it seems to me, is within the gift of most dairy farmers in Wales particularly since IBERS, home to a great deal of breeding expertise and the Grassland Development Centre, is right on our doorstep and a new Farming Connect programme is being rolled out.

But does more milk from forage automatically mean a significant reduction in yield? Not necessarily so, argued Chris Reynolds of Reading University. He outlined a number of strategies to minimize the negative effect of lower protein diets on milk and milk protein production, including feeding higher energy diets, synchronizing supplies of rumen degradable protein and energy, and feeding rumen-protected proteins and essential amino acids. All of which suggest production can be maintained on a diet of less than 17% protein, well within the reach of a forage rich diet. The Finns are already on the case. Heli Ahonen of Juvan Luomu Ltd showed that organic cows in Finland could average more than 8000 l/year without using soya, relying instead on good quality grass-clover silage, cereals, a little oilseed rape cake, field peas and faba beans.

So the question for the conference was not whether, but by how much, we should increase milk from forage. The Pasture Fed Livestock Association was clear on the matter – all the way. 100% forage diets were, in their view, not only achievable but in the long-term necessary.  For spring calving herds this may well be so, but if we want a year round supply of milk (and there are no signs that society is ready to accept milk as a seasonal product) we need some autumn calving herds. And for them, a 100% forage diet is an altogether different, and altogether difficult, matter.

We can argue about exactly what we are aiming at until the cows come home. But at the end of the day, conference was agreed we can, should and will make significant progress in increasing milk from forage. Maybe that’s enough. At least for now.

Presentations and reports available here

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