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Don’t let complacency get in the way of good winter rations

With earlier concerns about potential forage shortages no longer an issue for most of the country thanks to the summer rains, the need to plan winter rations and secure feed supplies early might seem less important. But with limited availability of many key feed materials, and high or fluctuating prices for the rest, creating well balanced winter rations whilst keeping feed costs in check could still be a challenge, claims Trident technical manager Dr Michael Marsden.

“Good second and third cut grass silages will help top up clamps left short by earlier dry weather, and maize crops look good except for a few patches in the south and south east that didn’t get the May-June rains soon enough,” he highlights. “So most farms will end up with good stocks of good quality forage on which to build winter rations.

“But there are still issues to be addressed, with some farms still suffering from the spring drought, and others with low energy, wet, acidic silage taken during poor weather early in the season, particularly in the north west and Scotland. There are also a few clamps bulging with large volumes of higher fibre, later-cut silage.”

If silage volumes are short due to drought, or because cereal crops were allowed to ripen to make the most of the high cereal price instead of cutting for wholecrop silage, prompt action is needed. Moist feeds have been in high demand since the spring due to the earlier forage shortage, with availability still limited in most cases.

“Actually securing supplies of moist feeds may well be more important than the price paid,” continues Dr Marsden. “Forward contracts will need to be booked as soon as possible to guarantee supply for the winter, with the UK pressed pulp volume also likely to be sold quickly when contracts are released early next month.”

Where silages are very good quality but low in fibre, or wet and acidic, additional digestible fibre will be needed to help buffer the rumen against acidosis. Soya hulls are good value at the moment, but not as effective or palatable as sugar beet feed.

It may also be tempting to reduce the amount of chopped straw in the ration due to cost and availability – straw volumes were hit hard by the dry weather – but it’s generally accepted that the benefits of the structural fibre in straw will still outweigh the cost on most dairy units. The best option is to make the most of the straw by ensuring it’s properly chopped to around 5cm in length, to prevent cows sorting it from the ration. And be careful when using straw from crops harvested for crimped grain as this contains less structural fibre, so more may be needed.

“Low feed value silages – any below around 10.8MJ ME/kg DM – will also benefit from an energy boost, with the energy in liquid feeds like British beet molasses typically 15-20% cheaper than rolled home-grown cereals,” Dr Marsden states. “The high palatability of liquid feeds will also improve dry matter intakes where silage quality is poor, not only lifting ration energy density, but also total nutrient intake.”

Where silage energy levels are moderate, Dr Marsden recommends incorporating 200-500g/cow/day of a rumen-protected fat into high yielder rations to replace the missing energy in the silage, rather than feeding more high-starch feeds like rolled wheat. This will reduce the risk of an excessive fermentation over loading the rumen. And where silage fibre levels are low, a high C-16 protected fat (e.g. Butterfat Extra or FatBoost) should be considered to help maintain milk fat production, especially if supplying milk on a high milk fat contract

“All silages also need to be balanced with additional protein feeds to lift overall protein content from the 9-13% typical of most forages to the 17-18% needed in the ration,” he explains. “High protein liquid feeds like Spey Syrup (35% crude protein, dry matter basis) are one  of the best options for supplying additional rumen degradable protein, as they also contain the energy needed to best utilise it in the rumen.

“But in many rations formulated for high yielding or early lactation cows, rumen fermentation will be near its limit, meaning that the extra protein must be supplied as rumen-bypass protein. Table 1 shows the cost per unit of this rumen-bypass protein for soyabean meal – the standard high quality protein used in most dairy rations – is high compared to the better value alternatives.

“With soyabean meal prices remaining high, there are considerable cost savings to be made by using alternative protein feeding strategies this winter,” he adds.

Table 1 – Comparative costs of rumen-bypass protein

Price 1


Rumen-bypass protein

(g DUP 2/kg)


(p/100g DUP)

Hi-pro soyabean meal – bulk




SoyPass (rumen-protected soyabean meal)




ProtoTec (heat-treated rapemeal)




1 Prices quoted correct at time of going to press, based on bulk loads delivered on-farm within 50 miles of source, prices will vary with load sizes and distance from source.

2 DUP = digestible undegradable protein, otherwise known as rumen-bypass protein.

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