Now is the time to consider your 2016 cropping options

Published 23 October 15

Now is the time to consider your cropping options for 2016, according to Dr Stephen Whelan, R&D manager at AHDB Dairy.

Many farmers will be completing the end of their autumn rotation and are planning ahead for next spring, which makes it an ideal time to consider if your farm has the right crop mix to maximise utilisable nutrients (energy and protein) per hectare. This exercise should have one ultimate goal, producing a higher portion of milk from forage in your farming system, something that may be a worthy challenge for 2016.

For dairy farmers, the concept of a crop mix is probably a little alien. The UK is after all, well suited to growing grass, and dairy farmers tend to be quite good at it. However, in the cereal sector they use crop mixes of winter and spring cereals, each with different sowing and harvest dates. This helps with risk management, workflow and optimisation of machine use, advantages dairy farmer can also make use of.

Let’s go back to grass as an example. While it is an excellent crop when managed correctly, harvesting a high yield of digestible nutrients can be somewhat challenging. Naturally, all dairy farmers want to mow, cut and ensile the crop of grass within the same two weeks of the year and the contractor is expected be on several farms at once. Something has to give with this approach, inevitably it is the quality of the harvested grass, resulting in an inferior product to feed the cows during the housing period.

How can a crop mix help? Similar to the cereal sector, a crop mix can dilute the risk and workload across multiple harvests with the intention to maximise the utilisable yield. The type of crop mix comes down to the technology available to the farmer and the land type, however, within these constrains there are still options. For example, some farms may be suited to outwintering the young stock and dry cows, thus displacing some of the requirement for conserved forages.

Others may wish to explore the use of maize, whole crop cereal or lucerne silage. The main advantage of these forages is that they are harvested at different times of the year than grass silage, spreading the work load and reducing the risk associated with weather. A successful crop of these forages may also help displace purchased concentrate, reducing the cost of the overall ration.

Factors that contribute to successful forage crops are similar to those of conventional pasture management. In particular, success requires knowing your farm, selecting a crop that will perform well there and providing that crop with the right level of inputs to ensure it yields well. Once the right crop and variety has been selected, attention can turn to field selection and nutrient planning. For example, if outwintering is being explored as an option then a free draining site that will provide a dry, sheltered place for the animal to lye is important. Has the intended field had a soil test recently? Fodder beet and maize, for example, prefer a higher pH soil and this will need to be corrected before planting in the spring. A summary of the crop options available to dairy farmers is presented in Table 1.

Of course, even if land or labour availability does not allow for diverse crop mixes, there are still options available. In this instance, collaboration with local cereal farmers may result in a more successful crop production. Here, a business case should be drawn up with a clear view of the risks and costs involved for both parties.

Table 1. Forage options potentially available to dairy farmers for 2106




Further resource


·         High yields of starch are possible

·         Improves DMI vs. grass silage-only diets

·         Potential to displace concentrate

·         Likes warmth so regions of high elevation further from the sea tend to be unsuitable

·         Low in CP

·         Specialist planting and harvesting equipment required

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·         Multiple harvests per year

·         Fixes N

·         Higher CP forage that could complement maize silage

·         Establishment is difficult, as early growth is not vigorous

·         Harvest management critical to reduce leaf loss

·         Ensilage may require inoculation

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Red clover

·         Easier to establish than lucerne

·         Fixes N

·         Higher in CP

·         Ensilage may require inoculation

·         Harvest management critical to reduce leaf loss


Grass and Clover List

Whole crop

·         Standard cropping equipment will suffice

·         Many suitable regions in the UK

·         Wide choice of crops and multiple sowing times

·         Starch content critical but not always realised

·         Specialist harvesting required for more matured crops

·         Higher technical inputs required compared to maize

AHDB Beef & Lamb

Recommended list

AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds


Fodder beet

·         Can be grazed or harvested for winter feeding but different varieties for both

·         High yielding crop

·         Specialised planting and lifting equipment required

·         Root is low in CP

·         Root requires cleaning before feeding

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