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I KNOW that you have only just emerged from a prolonged and extremely cold winter, that the daffodils are only now coming to flower, that lawns have probably only been cut just the once since last autumn – and yet, here I am in mid-March asking you to fast-forward to next winter, suggesting that there is still more scope and opportunities to be had with your extremely valuable home-grown forage.

The idea of out-wintering stock on forage crops should appeal to most farmers, as there are huge financial benefits. But unfortunately, impracticalities will render some farms as being unsuitable, as good field selection will be quite critical to the overall success of the project.

So for those of you that tend to be on heavier soils, or where fields are exposed and offer little shelter for livestock, you might think that this is not for you, are already bored and that maybe this is the time to put the kettle on – in which case make mine with very little milk and no sugar – please!

As I’ve previously mentioned, the financial benefits of out-wintering stock on forage crops are vast, with typical examples of savings being reductions in feeding costs, winter housing costs and labour and machinery costs, to name but a few. Other advantages would be an extension to the grazing season, a good break crop before going back into a grass re-seed or forage maize, and the avoidance of winter housing-related health problems. The stock to which I refer would be both beef and sheep, but dairy farmers with easy access and good tracks to and from the dairy ought to give this option a consideration at the very least.

Right!! You’re up for it – you are going to “give it a go”, but first of all there are some key questions that need to be both asked and answered. The type and number of stock to be out-wintered will then lead into a calculation of feed to be produced and also when would you anticipate starting and finishing feeding – the latter dictating to a degree what crops you should be growing. The selection of crops that can be successfully used for out-wintering is somewhat limited, as palatability and digestibility is often destroyed in many crops as temperatures drop and the winter lengthens. Disease resistance, which is something that I am continually harping on about, is very important – especially powdery mildew resistance in swedes and club root in kale.

But perhaps one of the major factors that has to be considered is winter hardiness. Dry matter yield, versatility and the ability to regrow are the other obvious factors and, putting all this together, the realistic number of crops that you can grow would be probably four – fodder beet, kale, swedes and forage rape.

Fodder beet
April is the normal sowing date for this exceptionally high-energy crop, with fresh yields being 30 tonnes per acre or upwards – plus tops! Can be grazed from October onwards, but choose a variety such as Blaze that has a very high percentage of bulb out of the ground – thus avoiding teething problems and a medium dry matter content – again for the teeth! A high-input/high-output crop, so please work closely with your agronomist. The leaves can contribute approximately three tonnes of high protein feed per hectare; however they should not be utilised during the growing period, only when they have been frosted, or cut and wilted for at least 48 hours should grazing be required earlier on.

Kale
Sown from April to July, kale can be grazed from September through until March. Fresh yields from 25 tonnes per acre at 15% dry matter with a high crude protein content of up to 17%, plus D Values of around 68. Keeper would be my preferred choice for a lamb-only situation due to it being a medium/short variety, but go for Grampian should you want a dual purpose sheep/beef variety – both of these offering exceptional winter hardiness and yields.

Swedes
Sown from May to early July, this crop offers a superb combination of both yield and quality, with fresh yields averaging out at around 30 tonnes per acre and dry matters up to 12%. D Values of 82 and MEs of 13 are now the norm and can be grazed from October until March.

I would recommend going for at least two varieties here – pre and post-Christmas grazing, e.g. Gowrie for pre-Christmas and Invitation for post-Christmas.

Forage rape
Sown from June to August, this quick-growing high-protein forage crop can deliver fresh yields of 12 tonnes per acre in 14 weeks, with the later sowings being grazed right though until early January.

This makes it an ideal crop to follow first cut silage or early harvested spring barley. Some of the varieties like Interval have kale parentage, which enhances winter hardiness.

Like most things, these crops can be subjected to a pest attack of varied form and intensity so, once again, careful planning in the early phases will prove very useful. Flea beetle would be one of the potential problems, so please ensure that any seed is suitably dressed and do try and avoid any site that is club root-susceptible.

Fast-forwarding to October, the crops are now ready for grazing, but there are still a few things that you should do before turning the stock in. The use of an electric fence will maximize utilisation but ensure that the crop face will permit access to all stock.

Move the fence daily. Introduce the animals gradually and create a grass run back area for animals to lie down and cud.

Ensure minerals are available and that all stock has access to fibrous hay and/or straw. Ensure water supply is adequate – especially if Jack Frost is making periodic visits!

There are a number of good guides available such as Out Wintering On Fodder Crops, published by EBLEX, with Limagrain UK publishing an excellent growers’ guide that goes into much closer detail with each crop.

I have merely tried to give you a bit of an overview of what can be achieved with home-grown forage plus a bit of forward planning.