Optimising home-grown feeds: better for your pocket and the planet

The last 12 months have been like no other in our lifetime. The whole world has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and, whilst farming fortunes have been mixed during this time of crisis, there are changes ahead which will affect us all.

Despite the many uncertainties – whether driven by Brexit, the introduction of the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs), or the climate crisis – we can be confident that at the heart of the changes will be carbon footprinting and sustainability.

Dairy and beef production have borne the brunt of the negative press coverage on these issues, including questions raised over the sustainability of feeding bought-in proteins. Yet there is much the livestock industry can do to make significant improvements, and getting smarter at producing home-grown feed should be high on the agenda.

At Kelvin Cave Ltd we have been beating this drum for many years, supporting producers in preserving and processing home-grown concentrates and forage, and turning them into meat and milk. This approach has always had the potential to drive down costs of production and improve financial performance, but it can also make a massive dent in a farm’s carbon footprint and improve its sustainability.

Our case study with John Mann demonstrates how best-practice in feed and forage production has achieved ‘Channel Island quality milk’ from Holsteins, and delivered impressive margins.

The steps taken by John, and many of our other customers, are not only improving their performance and profitability today, but moving their businesses closer to the inevitable environmental requirements of the future.

Does making better silage benefit the environment (as well as your pocket)?

As a base for ruminant diets, maximising forage quality definitely offers environmental benefits in several ways:

Every 1% drop in D value is equivalent to a 0.5 litre increase in methane emissions, per cow per day. This is due to higher levels of indigestible fibre slowing down rumen throughput. Although methane from livestock production only accounts for around 4% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK (but 14.5% globally), it is only present in the atmosphere for 10 years compared to 110 years for nitrous oxide and 1000 years for CO2 so any reduction can have a relatively quick effect.

Reducing dry matter (DM) losses in silage is also critical as not only does it reduce CO2 released into the atmosphere directly, but there is also a significant fuel use both during harvesting but also in the manufacture of fertiliser used in producing the ‘lost’ tonnes.

Safesil and Activator + CA are both proven to reduce DM loss in all forages, unlike inoculants containing hetero-fermenting bacteria, which may stabilise your silage, but in doing so, actually increase dry matter losses. They also have the potential to reduce palatability and intakes due to higher levels of acetic acid.

Selecting the right product to preserve your silage from the wide range of additives on the market can be a daunting process. Our area managers, backed by years of experience, can help you through the process.

How will growing my own protein help?

The Global Feed Lifecycle Assessment Institute (GFLI) database shows the carbon footprint (grams of CO2 equivalent per kg freshweight) of many feeds including several commonly used protein sources, as shown below:

Beans: 936
US maize distillers: 1,712
Palm kernel: 5,547
Soya: 4,325
Rapemeal: 1,280

Pea and bean mix
Pea and bean mix

As these are described as ‘gate to gate’ figures and only account for transportation and processing costs between grower and end user, it is likely that the difference will be much greater if the carbon footprint of growing the crop is also considered, or if proteins are home-grown or locally sourced. The two proteins with the highest carbon footprints (soya and palm kernel) also have the worst reputations for sustainability and habitat destruction through deforestation.

Deforestation on a massive scale often makes way for cultivating protein crops such as soya and oil palm. Transportation and processing adds to their carbon footprint.
Deforestation on a massive scale often makes way for cultivating protein crops such as soya and oil palm. Transportation and processing adds to their carbon footprint.

As shown in previous issues of KnowHow, Kelvin Cave Ltd is experienced in helping farmers cut costs by utilising home-grown beans, peas and lupins. These protein crops also act as a break crop and fix nitrogen to benefit the following cereal crop. They are known to improve soil structure and may be a useful tool in controlling blackgrass and other weeds.

As the oilseed rape acreage continues to decrease due to flea beetle and wetter autumns, there is a great opportunity for co-operation between the livestock and arable sectors to work more closely and reduce the UK’s reliance on bought-in proteins.

Is crimping better for the environment than drying grain or using urea treatments?

Research conducted in Sweden (Rogard 2004) compared crimping grain to drying down from various moistures and concluded that crimping was better for the environment than drying grain. Crimped grain produced only 11.9kg of CO2 equivalent per tonne compared to 39.1kg when dried from 20%. Other environmental benefits were seen in terms of reduced acidification and reduced ozone depletion.

An alternative method of preserving grain, as opposed to drying it, is the addition of urea-based preservatives. Whilst this process may appear attractive at first glance as it claims to increase protein levels, between 40% and 60% of the added nitrogen is lost before it is consumed due to ammonia volatilisation. With government policy now aiming to reduce agricultural ammonia emissions through regulation, care must be taken if this approach is considered.

Secondly, in order to fully utilise the non-protein nitrogen and prevent its release into the atmosphere as a nitrogen-based greenhouse gas, extra sugar is required in the diet. This will almost certainly require the addition of more purchased feeds, reducing production from home-grown feeds and almost certainly increasing production costs.

Not only will these three simple steps – making better silage, producing home-grown protein and crimping rather than drying grain or treating with urea – help improve the environmental credentials of your business, but steps such as this may also become a necessity, in some part, for ELMs payments.

This will also improve the public perception of the farming industry and hopefully raise awareness across the general public of the benefits of buying British.

But, perhaps more importantly, focusing on maximising performance and profit from home-grown feeds will help the bank balance too.

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