• Robert Sloan Auchinleck Ayrshire

    NIS solves sorting, helping to boost rumen health and yield

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Introducing Jerseys to the herd to help meet a new milk contract opportunity prompted one Ayrshire farmer to seek out alternative ways of getting sufficient fibre into his ration. But a switch to nutritionally improved straw has worked so well, he’s now using the feed across all his dairy rations to maintain rumen health, intakes and butterfat.

Managing 240 year-round calving cows on 390 acres near Auchinleck in Ayrshire with up to 1.4 metres of rainfall a year means Robert Sloan faces constant challenges with getting his cow nutrition just right.

The climate at Darnlaw Farm, which he runs along with parents Bryce and Anne, rules out maize silage, and the short season limits him to just two cuts of high quality but relatively low dry matter silage. This can leave the ration short on fibre, a problem Robert and his nutritionist John Barnes work hard to correct.

However, a recent opportunity to supply a new market for added value dairy products led to a change of approach for the family, with numbers in the Holstein herd reduced to make way for a new Jersey herd – and an unexpected discovery, Robert explains.

We used to be all Holstein with high-yielders kept inside and milked through two robotic milkers we installed in 2012, and low yielders turned out in the grazing season and milked twice a day through the parlour. We decided to keep the parlour after the robots were installed and it’s proved useful for flexibility.


After each milking, they’d be fed TMR but would sort out the straw each time. We started to get very concerned about the low levels of fibre the Jerseys were taking in so needed to find a better solution than just adding chopped straw to the ration.

Reading reports on social media from Northern Irish Holstein breeder David Irwin about using nutritionally improved straw (NIS) in his Redhouse Holsteins herd prompted Robert to investigate the potential for replacing all the straw in his diet with NIS, to see whether that would cut the level of sorting.

“I talked it through with John and we thought we should give it a go, not least because the pellets would be physically harder for the Jerseys to sort. And it worked straight away! We simply swapped the 1kg of straw for 1kg NIS and the Jerseys ate it all with no sorting.”

In fact the Jerseys were performing so well on the modified diet, John decided to try some changes in the Holstein ration shortly after.

John explains: “We were concerned the black and whites weren’t getting enough energy density in their diet – it was too bulky from the added straw and they had this lethargy – so I got Robert to take out the 1.5kg chopped straw and added in the same weight of NIS instead. We then changed the TMR ration target from maintenance (M)+26 litres to its current level of M+23 by reducing concentrates in the trough; instead we target-fed more concentrate through the robots.”

The results were immediately noticeable, says John. The cows started eating more forage. Dry matter intake rose by over 0.5kg. Yields increased from around 34-35 litres to around 38 litres without any reduction in butterfat, which stayed steady at 4.1%. And dung consistency improved markedly with cases of acidosis virtually disappearing, leading John to remove the rumen buffer from the ration. This resulted in a far more efficient trough mix with fewer lower yielding cows being over-fed.

Now the cows are on target to achieve 305-day yields of 11,600 litres at 4.1% butterfat and 3.1% protein for the Holsteins, and 6,000 litres at 6.4% fat and 3.9% protein for the Jerseys.

Robert says rumen stability has made a big difference to cow performance in allowing the ration to work harder. “It’s making best use of my good, but fairly wet, silage and means we can make small tweaks to the diet as we go along.

“There’s a saving in time and storage space too. Previously we’d buy in wheat straw at £90/tonne then have to store it. Each day we’d put it in the mixer wagon first so it had 20 minutes to chop before we added any other ingredients. Then the cows would still sort it out! Now I’m getting a better financial return from NIS because it’s cut out the waste and the cows are performing better,” adds Robert.

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