More roughage from healthy soil

Published on
September 28, 2016

By taking good care of the soil and applying a smarter cultivation plan, dairy farmers can harvest more and better roughage per hectare. Over the coming years a large-scale public Public-Private Partnership (PPS) will be collecting the required knowledge.

According to estimates by the Roughage Platform, a partnership between Wageningen University & Research and sector parties, dairy farmers are currently missing out on 15 per cent of their grass and ten per cent of their maize yield. Moreover, the current production method for roughage is putting unnecessary pressure on the quality of the soil, resulting in a risk of further yield reductions and making plots less resistant to heavy rains or longer drought periods.

PPS Roughage Production and Soil Management (Ruwvoer & Bodem), which runs until 2019, is aimed at providing practical tools for a more efficient and sustainable roughage production, based on sub-projects in which companies and sector representatives work together with animal and plant scientists. “This aspect is unique,” says Wijnand Sukkel, one of the coordinators from Wageningen University & Research. “In doing so we are combining our knowledge of cattle farming and plant soil interactions.”

Analysing the growth plan

The first step in the project is to perform an analysis of the so-called yield gap; the difference between the actual and potential yield. “We want to know exactly why the yields are lagging behind,” says Sukkel. “We often have an indication, such as the continuous cultivation of maize being unsustainable in the long term because it slowly exhausts the soil. By combining maize with other crops via crop rotation or second crops, you may get less maize yield per hectare, but it could increase the total roughage production of a company.”

Breeding sector

The breeding sector is also closely involved in the project as new methods sometimes demand specific properties and, therefore, genetics. This includes breeding companies working on maize varieties which mature earlier. An early variety gives more space for a full second crop and a better chance of good harvesting conditions. The risk of compacted wheel tracks   and damage to the soil increases in late autumn.

Grass is another focal point of the breeders who are looking at issues such as rooting and the use of clover. Grass clover mixtures have a good yield and demand less nitrogen. A better rootingsystem of grasses can give a better soilquality, resilience against drought and it can also give additional carbon sequestration in the soil.. “We will also have to re-evaluate proper grassland management,” Sukkel continues. “A lot of the information is outdated. We now face strict manure standards and different breeding conditions.”

Knowledge to practice 

Various smaller projects in recent years have already made advances toward possible improvements in roughage production. The initiators are taking these into account as much as possible. New research is also being initiated. The resulting knowledge will be passed on in practice via various open days at the participating (test) companies, among others. Sector organisations, such as contracting organisation Cumela, will also play a role in this regard. Contracting companies play an increasingly important part in the roughage supply of dairy farms and invest in soil-friendly techniques and equipment for yield measurement.