JUST in case it has momentarily slipped your memory, 2008 hasn't really been that good to us - has it? I am fully aware that we have once again benefited from a total relaxation of a hose pipe ban and dust storms have been confined to a dim and distant 2006, but the above average rainfall and below average sunshine hours this summer has led to the creation of potential feeding problems this winter for virtually everyone.

High rainfall always leads to heavy crops but, unfortunately, usually at the expense of quality. I think it is fair to say that most grass silage clamps are full and the cows will certainly not go hungry this winter, but great care should be taken when calculating the rations as the quality in most cases in rather suspect to say the least.

Last year, we had a wonderfully sunny and warm April and anyone who took their first cut of silage during the first week of May could be really proud of the quality. This year, however, and other than a bit of an Indian Summer in late September and early October, I cannot remember any prolonged period of warm and sunny weather where grass could really lay down some sugar and consequently, laboratory analysis from all cuts this year indicate poorer quality silage, with crude protein, D Values, ME's, lactic acid and projected intake levels being much lower than normal and, as such, causing some concern with nutritionists.

NDF levels are much higher than the optimum 45 - 46, suggesting that potentially, cows could be fed too much fibre.

One of the leading companies in the UK that specialise is this particular field is Frank Wright Trouw Nutrition International and I am indebted to them for their help in providing me with the averages for the south west this year (see table).

I would stress that these are the averages and therefore there would be farmers out there who would have made much better silage than this and as such, should not have as many concerns as those highlighted but similarly, and here's the rub, there would be a significant number whose figures would be worse than this and if they haven't already done so, they must start speaking with their nutritionist or feed supplier at the earliest opportunity in order to prevent a calamity this winter.

One such company to be voicing these same fears is Holsworthy based Harpers Home Mix and at a recent meeting, Pete Davis, a ruminant specialist with Harpers, outlined his own thoughts.

'My expectation is that is that in general, grass silages are poor, with a definite tendency to be wet, acidic and fibrous. When you have silages like this, they can be palatable providing that you can control the acidity. The potential issue is that maize is under pressure to be cut early and will therefore have a high chance of also being wet and acidic. The combination is not a good one!! If a diet is very wet, then you start to get issues over whether a cow, or particularly a heifer, can actually eat enough. This is because you can only put so much bulk into a limited space. If she cannot eat enough, then she will lose weight, underperform and struggle to get back in calf.

Sometimes, this is where wholecrops can save the day. My rule of thumb is if you make wet grass silage, take a drier cut of wholecrop at say 65% DM and if you make dry grass silage, then aim for a wetter wholecrop at 35% DM, the combination of these forages can then make for a better diet. As an aside, it is worth mentioning that with so much cheap wheat on the market at the moment, there will be a lot of farmers who would be looking to feed significant amounts of it and with these wet and acidic silages, this could be very dangerous, so correct diet formulation and regular checking of the cows is going to be a must this season.

When silages are poor, it really comes down to good nutrition to actually allow you to get the most out of your cows. Anyone that believes in sitting at the kitchen table and rationing cattle through the window will have a high chance of causing dietry problems rather than creating solutions. Being hands on is absolutely crucial as this is one of those years where experience and knowledge will count well above scientific number crunching. I expect that we will also see some late lactation cows coming in on to winter diets and crashing in yields as I see that there have been some fairly unrealistic figures bandied about lately for October grazing. "This is also likely to hit freshly calved cows but it is more likely to affect their fertility than yield,'' he said.

We have already started to see a few crops of forage maize being harvested - some because farmers desperately wanted some high energy feed even though the crop wasn't quite ready, with others being forced somewhat due to heavy infections of eyespot - with resultant dry matters being on the high side due to virtual death of the stover and starch being lower, with the current national average being only 28.5% DM and 26.4% starch (figures again courtesy of Frank Wright Trouw Nutrition). As the main harvesting season is about to get fully underway - albeit a couple of weeks or more late - I would expect to see both dry matters and starch levels to be a little higher, but there won't be that many above 30% this year!

It's not all bad news though. The fodder beet market is up by 10% this year with most growers being extremely optimistic over yields - some of which has been lifted already in order to provide much needed energy for the cows, but the bulk will be harvested during November.

Long term growers have reported that weed control was anything but easy this year due to the high rainfall, but were equally keen to point out that it was worthwhile as yields could be anything between 30 and 40 tonnes per acre.

And finally. Although the maize harvest is much later this year, there is still time, in most cases, to get a crop of "something" planted behind it before winter sets in, with perhaps winter wheat being the ideal solution, which then gives you the option of either wholecropping or combining next year.

Another option, and on sites where winter is, say, a little later to set in and you can still prepare a good to reasonable seedbed, is an all tetraploid mixture of Italian Ryegrass, sown at a minimum of 16 kgs per acre, and at this time of year, a mixture that comes ready dressed with a seed treatment that helps speed up germination and establishment, must be a benefit. You could reasonably expect to harvest six tonnes per acre at 20% dry matter toward the end of next April - assuming you will be planting maize again in early May - with 1.25 tonnes of dry matter being worth about £125 per acre, and with the seed costing around £35 per acre, that should be an exercise well worth considering - especially if you include the environmental benefits as well.