Updated: Jan 22
Producing a dedicated, low potassium haylage crop has solved milk fever issues at Craigie Mains Farm, Kilmarnock, while providing a fibrous, palatable forage for dry cows.
About four years ago, the farm’s 370-cow herd was struggling with milk fever issues, which was leading to issues with retained foetal membrane and displaced abomasums.
“Our issue here is high potassium forage,” explains Graeme Kilpatrick. “We were doing DCAB, high straw diets, but we were always having issues with milk fevers - and really serious milk fevers. It was not uncommon for cows to get three to five bottles of calcium.”
Potassium blocks magnesium absorption which is essential for the mobilisation of calcium around calving. As a result, high potassium can lead to milk fever issues. After speaking to other farmers who had got on well with haylage, Mr Kilpatrick decided to produce a dedicated haylage crop from ground that had not received slurry and was subsequently low in potassium. A block of land, six miles away from the main farm proved ideal.
Baled haylage was also attractive as the farm did not have the clamp space for a low potassium silage crop. Mr Kilpatrick also thought a high dry matter haylage bale was better for rumen health than baled silage. It was also more convenient to feed bales to a small group of 45-50 dry cows.
He says: “The drier the bales, the better they are to handle and stack and the less bales you have as it’s higher dry matter. It’s a nice product for everybody to work with, including people and cows. There is a nice, sweet smell.”
Compared to straw, haylage is also more palatable and does not necessarily need chopping, although Mr Kilpatrick is considering chopping this season to aid intakes. For maximum palatability, he also believes harvesting haylage no drier than 40% DM is a must, otherwise fermentation becomes a challenge and there is increased risk of mould.
The team takes two cuts of haylage a year from 34 acres of ground. This is usually cut around mid-June and late-August and is taken off mature leys, which were initially planted as a hay mix for horses. Moving forward, the aim is to sow a specific mix for haylage, although the exact makeup is yet to be decided. About 50 units of a 27:5:5 fertiliser is applied for each cut.
Mr Kilpatrick believes tedding the crop out two to three times is vital to achieve the target dry matter. This is particularly the case considering the farm receives an average 42 inches of rainfall a year. He has found it is better to ted at a lower rotor speed after the first pass to stop the crop from ‘lumping up.’
Bales will be double wrapped as a minimum, although three to four layers will be used if the crop is particularly stemmy. The bales are also wrapped in the same place they are stacked so they are only handled once. Both of these actions help reduce plastic puncture risk.
Since feeding the low potassium haylage to dry cows, milk fever is now a rarity.
“We still give calcium boluses, but it’s very rare to give a calcium bottle and cows are calving without assistance and are happier,” says Mr Kilpatrick.