By Robert Ramsay, beef consultant SAC Consulting

With virtually half of 2020 now behind us, it is clear that 2020 will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

For the last three months, there has been only one conversation topic, Covid 19. However, if that hadn’t reared its head, what would we be talking about? The narrative would no doubt be very different, with an inevitable focus on climate change, veganism and Brexit – major issues for our industry, all of which are on hold, they haven’t gone away.

Another major talking point would definitely be the weather. Having emerged from one of the wettest winters on record, an exceptionally dry spring was initially very welcome.

However, the lack of rain has caused significant problems across much of the country. With very little winter crop in the ground, there was always going to be a big reliance on spring sown crops this year. Wet weather in early spring delayed sowing and dry weather afterwards has resulted in many spring crops struggling. These are likely to be low yielding, for both grain and straw.

Most of the country has now seen some very welcome rain and crops are responding well but the effect of the initial lack of moisture will not be entirely reversed. The situation seems to be particularly bleak south of the Border, where crops, in some areas, are nearly a write off, with soil moisture levels at rock bottom.

Some growers are questioning whether harvesting these crops will be economically viable. All these factors indicate that there is real risk of straw shortages this winter. The lack of bedding is also likely to be exacerbated by a significant reduction in timber by-products like woodfines, as the industry has been affected by lockdown. Hopefully these plants will get up to full capacity soon and will be able to fill the gap in supply.

Yield of silage has been very variable across the country, with some areas achieving bumper crops, while others have seen very disappointing results.

It is very important to get forage analysed (minimum four weeks post cutting) to get an idea of both quality and quantity. Once you know the dry matter, you can easily estimate total feed in store and make management decisions to suit.

This year, first cuts are likely to be particularly dry, so don’t base all decisions on the number of bales made, it’s what’s in the bale that really matters.

For example, 1000 bales (approx 600t) at 35% dry matter = 210 tonnes dry matter and 1000 bales (approx 700t) at 23% dry matter = 161 tonnes dry matter. The difference of 49 tonnes of dry matter would feed 100 suckler cows for roughly two months!

At this stage in the year, taking time to assess feed supplies, enables time to make changes and ensure sufficient forage and bedding for the winter.

In June there are still plenty of options to bulk up feed reserves for the winter. Could forage crops be planted if needed? Or harvest a standing cereal crop as wholecrop (which would help feed but perhaps reduce bedding supplies)? Should cutting date be delayed for second cut to boost yield? Remember this approach will increase quantity but lower quality.

The other option to extend forage supplies is to reduce demand. Buying feed for unproductive animals is never cost effective, particularly when feed is in short supply. Now is the time to think about what animals are to be culled and when to do it. With cull cows and store cattle an exceptional trade, don’t wait until there is no feed left before selling them. Selling will put money in the bank and also provide vital forage savings.

There is no need to panic at the moment. In mid summer, there is time to plan and adapt to make sure sufficient forages are available to get through the winter. With a good carry over of straw from last year, now is also a good time to speak to merchants and discuss options for putting a load in the shed early, or forward buying as an insurance.

A feed budget is a hugely powerful tool when supplies are likely to be tight. Start working on a feed budget, but remember this is always work in progress and needs to be adapted throughout the year. It is well worth discussing feed budgeting with others, consultants and nutritionists will gladly help.

If you assume everything is going to be fine, you are leaving yourself and your stock very exposed to forage shortages. If you think and act just now, you have plenty time to rectify any issues and will put your business in the best place possible as we head into the winter.