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Independent.ie

Monday 21 August 2017

Alternative forage crops have big potential for finishing stock

Maize silage has a lot of benefits for a livestock enterprise
Maize silage has a lot of benefits for a livestock enterprise

Gerry Giggins

The old expression of 'a great stretch in the evenings' is no doubt currently being used as a conversation opener up and down the country.

The relatively low rainfall over the first two months of the year has resulted in most fields being in excellent condition for any field activities and grazing.

Based on the formulation of winter rations and subsequent animal performance, the 2016 crops of maize silage, cereal whole- crop and fodder beet were of exceptional quality.

Where any or a combination of these forages are used in a beef finishing system, the common trend of improved animal performance and increased kill-outs can be seen.

Given that it is now the time of year where decisions are made regarding land use or cropping plans, it is worth considering the use of these forages for winter 2017.

Without delving too much into the agronomy of these individual crops, any field preparation that can be done in favourable conditions will all enhance the crop yield.

After two poor maize- growing seasons in 2014 and 2015, many people's faith in the crop was tested.

Those who persevered were rewarded in 2016 with some of the best crops ever grown in this country.


I have tested over 100 different maize silage samples this winter, with each sample seemingly bettering the previous!

The 2014/2015 crops rarely exceeded 25pc starch content, with dry matters maxing 28pc. Last year's crops have been averaging 32pc dry matter and I have recorded starch contents as high as 38pc.

Where this quality of maize silage is being used, concentrate usage can be significantly reduced.

If the success of 2016 encourages people to resume growing maize or grow the crop for the first time, a number of key of factors should be considered.

After a number of years of debate, it is now clear that Ireland is a country where maize should only be grown under film - barring a handful of extremely favourable sites.

The selection of the correct variety will be influenced by location, site selection, sowing date and targeted harvest date.

Varieties are divided between early maturity, intermediate maturity and late maturity.

The general rule of thumb is that in the northern half of the country, it's advisable to select an early-maturing variety; intermediate varieties are best in the middle section of the country and late-maturing varieties are best in the south.

Wholecrop forage

Over the past few years, wholecrop cereals have become a somewhat forgotten forage.

Performance and the resulting reputation of wholecrop cereals has been unfairly tarnished in recent years due to a number of reasons:

  • Undersowing spring cereal crops with grass, lowering crop quality and effectiveness
  • Harvest date too early or too late
  • Lack of use of an appropriate additive, resulting in poor fermentation and high losses at feedout

When harvested at the correct stage, barley, wheat, oats and triticale all make for excellent sources of wholecrop cereal.

These forages can be fed to all grades of livestock, from young calves to intensively fed finishing animals. I always hold a preference for wholecrop wheat in intensive beef finishing rations.

However, wholecrop oats can double up as both a forage source and a digestible fibre source in similar intensive rations. After a horrendous harvest season in certain parts of country in 2016, perhaps those with cereal acreage and an adjacent livestock enterprise should give serious consideration to the option of wholecropping.

From all reports, fodder beet supplies are running tight in all the main growing regions. There has certainly been a rekindling of interest in the crop over the past number of years.

A greater appreciation of the crops feed characteristics and benefits, particularly in finishing animals, has also increased.

Specialist growers are now highly professional with regards crop agronomy, harvesting, cleaning, washing and chopping and advising on storage of the root crop.

In addition to all the benefits maize silage, cereal wholecrops and fodder beet have for a livestock enterprise, on arable land they are hugely beneficial as part of good crop rotation.

Seed catalogues and variety trials for any of these alternative forage crops would certainly make for some worthwhile bedtime reading in the coming weeks.

Gerry Giggins is an independent animal nutritionist based in Co Louth


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