How to get more out of forage, according to dairy farmer Harrald Helmers

A question many cattle farmers ask themselves – or should do: How can you get more out of roughage? The health of the cows – and the amount of milk they produce – depends largely on the quality of the forage, the quality of the feed storage and the quality of mixing. Because, if good forage is badly mixed, the cows will select and the most dominant animals will take the best feed.

"If you put hay in a bucket of water, it doesn't suddenly become fresh grass"

Should you add water to the ration or not?

Currently, there is a trend for adding water to the ration. The water makes the concentrate feed stick to the forage components so that the cows cannot select. Sometimes, a feed concentrate mix is soaked in water for hours in advance. But, according to dairy farmer Harrald Helmers, water is no miracle substance. On average, his 135 cows produce a good 12.5 thousand kilos of milk per cow per year with a fat content of 4% and a protein content of 3.6%. Harrald doesn't add water because he believes that it doesn't aid feed utilisation and increases the chance of heating. He thinks it is much more beneficial to study the flow of the feed through the cow. Harrald: "The fastest forage is still digested more slowly than the slowest concentrate feed. So, be sure to put the forage first – there's no such thing as too good silage. If you put in a bucket of water, hay doesn't suddenly become fresh grass. This means that more is lost during the drying process than just moisture. Carbohydrates and protein are lost too. It's better to ensile forage not too dry. Wet forage improves the feed utilisation because the bacteria have already started to work, also the feed no longer has to soak in the rumen, so the bacteria can start working in the rumen right away. We have around 35% dry matter in maize and grass silage. Before, it all had to be dry. But when did cattle farmers have the best output and the best content? When the silage hadn't become drier due to a forced short field period with changeable weather. This silage always turned out well because it was well absorbed. A cow loves fresh, acidic silage. It all stands or falls on the quality of the roughage." Helmers' ration consists of maize, grass silage, energy/protein mix, fresh grass (supplied separately) and concentrate feed in a box. 

“"Positive change thanks to mixer wagon"

How important is a good mixer wagon?

"We saw a big positive change in the behaviour of the cows after we switched from a feed wagon to a diet feeder. Now the cows only eat when they feel like it and not because they're afraid of missing the tastiest morsel. This is purely because the ration is mixed homogeneously and has a good moisture content. We milk 1,800 kilos more per cow per year and it's much more peaceful in the barn. By the way, if you want to check that a diet feeder is mixing well, you need to test it with wet, small quantities. If it mixes well, that's your mixer wagon."

“Adjust the forage using concentrate feed”

"The cows deliver a top performance – you could compare it to cycling in the Tour de France. The performance depends on how well the feed is absorbed. The overall picture has to be right. You should adjust the forage using concentrate feed, not the other way round. We're a high input/high output business. I don't look at the margins per kilo, but at the bottom line. We invest heavily in feed and try to keep output high. It's attractive to produce more milk per cow, and we can only do so with healthy animals, so the health of the cows is always paramount."

View mixer wagons