THIS time last year, I quoted one or two weather predictions for the summer of 2007 and why, because we had been largely promised another summer in line with that of 2006, we should, in addition to buying Factor 35 by the lorry load, be considering growing more forage crops in order to get us all through what was going to be a trying time indeed.

A "trying time" certainly but as we all now know, for entirely the opposite reasons. Remember the "summer" of 2007? We had a good start with a rather glorious April followed by a poor May, but we all felt back on course again with three wonderful days at the Royal Cornwall Show in early June - and then it started to rain - but never fear, I can clearly remember our summer!! It was about 3.30 pm one Saturday in late August and lasted for about three hours - and that, basically, was about it!

Those of you who sacrificed a wee bit of yield last year in return for an early May first cut were certainly rewarded with top-notch quality, but I am afraid to say that the same cannot be said about late first cuts and subsequent second cuts. Admittedly the clamps were bulging after the harvest, but the quality was suspect to say the least and with our current March weather being so awful to date, this suspect silage is still being fed as I write - with predictable results. I can only liken it to a seven-year-old being force fed with Brussells sprouts three times a day for a month and then wondering why on earth the kid was losing weight - and very unpopular!

We all know how important quantity is, but even though 2007 was a pretty abysmal year by anyone's standards, it did serve to remind us and shouted a message so loud and clear that it was almost deafening at times - quality!

I am fully aware that good- quality grazing and grass silage was difficult to maintain last year, but there are a number of key management decisions that can be made in order to get a real improvement and if the appalling weather of last year hasn't yet tipped the scales then the huge increases in the price of bought-in feeds surely will! With margins being tight even on the most profitable farms, more and better-quality forage has to be the order of the day and with fertiliser prices now through the roof and wheat being quoted around £194 per tonne delivered farm, farmers must concentrate on lowering the amounts of bought-in feeds by increasing both quantity and quality of their home grown forage - otherwise the consequences could be quite dire! I know that I have made some light-hearted remarks in this column at times and that I have shared a laugh and a joke with lots of you when we've met up at various shows and events, but folks, this is serious - deadly serious! You cannot continue to regard your home grown forage with such apparent contempt - especially your grass. This is by far and away the biggest crop in the Westcountry with current management levels probably realising only 65 per cent of its true potential, so the rewards that await those that are prepared to do something about it are obvious to see. If you have a field that has a high percentage of weed grasses, then it is fair to say that both quality and quantity will, in most years, reflect the composition of the sward - you just cannot expect to have good quality from a clapped out ley. But a lot of you do!

I have been working on this particular article for some while now and I am indebted to my former colleagues at Advanta Seeds in helping me produce some meaningful facts and figures in order to try and justify my continued bleatings about growing better forage and would like to quote just a few of their findings from recent trials.

Assume a 10-year-old pasture typically producing 2500 kgs DM/acre/year at 10.1 ME, which would support a stocking rate of 0.8 cows/acre and produces 915 ltrs/milk/acre.

Compare this against a Sinclair McGill grazing ley mixture - Prosper - which in the first year, could yield 5760 kgs DM/acre/year at 11.8 ME providing sufficient megajoules to produce 8975 litrs/milk/year - that's over £2,000 worth of extra milk from forage per acre in just the first year. I accept that this is a theoretical figure and in practice, you could lose up to say 20 per cent with natural field losses, but that still leaves £1,600 - and that's realistic! That figure would naturally drop year on year as the percentage of ryegrass drops in the sward, so a four to five-year re-seeding policy would be essential in order to maintain those levels.

Similar improvements are also seen when looking at LWG's in beef, sheep and lamb. Our old "mythical" pasture as quoted just now would support 1 x 600kg bullock/acre for seven months producing a possible 361 kgs LWG/acre. Compare this against Sinclair McGill's Turbo mixture which could produce around 5790 kgs DM/acre/year at 11.7 ME and effectively allow you to double the current stocking rate to 2 x 600 kg bullocks/acre from the potential increase in energy yield which would be capable of producing 1575 kgs of LWG/year. This will then release land on which you can grow additional forage crops or, indeed, cereals for re-sale. A third example would be sheep grazed on the Castlehill mixture which would produce sufficient yield and energy to support an extra 3.7 x 80 kg ewes/acre for 10 months.

Another re-seeding feature that we tend to forget or choose to ignore at times is the nitrogen fixation properties of clover. It's free nitrogen and that is probably why we are so complacent about it! The fertiliser industry's own figures calculate that clover can fix up to 200 kgs of N per Ha/year and with nitrogen costing about £270 per tonne, that works out to be a saving of about £157 per Ha. Most of the re-seeding in the Westcountry tends to take place during the autumn, but for those of you wishing to over-seed clover into an existing sward, Advanta has developed Cloverplus - a blend of white clovers which has been pelleted and treated with Headstart - a biological growth stimulant which really does work.

Forage Crops
Fodder beet has made a bit of a comeback of late and with yields of up to 90 tonnes/Ha, it's easy to see why. ME's are consistently around 13.0 so the energy production for this crop is quite immense. Feeds extremely well and can fit in with most grass or grass/maize diets. A crop that really responds to good management, so please liaise with your agronomist. Although DM production will be up to 10 per cent lower, I tend to prefer the varieties that sit out of the ground and are much cleaner to lift, e.g., Kyros and Blaze, but if you will be using a bottom lifter at harvest, consider the high yielding variety Maestro.

Swedes have been around for yonks and are probably considered a little unfashionable by many, but they can provide huge yields for the important post Christmas grazing period with ME's alongside that of fodder beet. Another option is to sow in early June and to strip graze in October and November and thus extend the autumn grass grazing period. Gowrie, a new variety bred by SCRI offers excellent all-round disease resistance.

Kale has a high protein content - approx 17% - and offers great grazing flexibility from summer right through until February. There are a number of varieties to choose from, but Grampian, again bred by SCRI, has improved yields combined with some club root resistance and is one of the highest yielders with 1.6 tonnes of DM/Ha more than the control variety. (Based on Advanta/SCRI Trials 1991 - 2006). Put your own figures on that increase, but it's got to be worth at least £160!

Stubble turnips are by far and away the most popular forage crop, but there should still be a lot more grown than at present. Typically sown after cereal harvest for both pre and post Christmas grazings, this extremely versatile crop can be sown in April/May for July/August grazings. Yields can vary by as much as 20 per cent between varieties, but go for a tetraploid variety such as Samson for early sowings as they tend to be more resistant to bolting and the leafier varieties such as Rondo and Tyfon if you are wanting more protein.

In conclusion, I cannot over stress the importance of growing good grass - and lots of it, but forage crops provide an extremely important support role as they can really extend the grazing season. If you are a dairy farmer and can maintain your current milk yields, it is vital that you improve your current milk from forage figures and if you are farming beef and sheep, then your stocking rates have to improve or your finishing times - or both!

These are difficult times and my crystal ball suggests that the future will be even more challenging, but the tools are there for you to use, as they always have been. The rest, as they say, is now down to you.