Farm Ireland

Sunday 22 July 2018

Beef farmers need to get serious about silage quality problems

Silage quality is extremely variable
Silage quality is extremely variable

Gerry Giggins

Any beef farmer compiling a New Year resolution list should certainly include making sufficient quantity and better quality silage in 2018.

Looking at 2017 trends, silage quality varied hugely but nationally there was no significant improvements made.

Average figures for dry matter digestibility, protein content and ensilability are generally short of the desired targets.

Bearing in mind that it is mid-January and the silage season can appear to be a distant speck on the farming calendar, now is the time to start planning and managing your 2018 silage crop.

As an industry we need to re- focus on:

  • Rising levels of soil contamination evident in our forages
  • Poor fermentation due to low sugar levels
  • Huge variations in the energy levels and dry matter digestibility

With regard to the levels of soil contamination in silage, I see a number of reasons for this becoming a growing issue.

Late slurry spreading onto pastures with existing good covers will obviously result in a certain degree of organic matter making its way back into the silage clamp.

The biggest contributor to soil contamination of silage is the incorrect setting of both mower and tedding rake heights during the silage making process.

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I hope that this will be a focus of Beef KT groups in the run up to making silage in summer 2018.

Making silage contractors aware of this issue would also hopefully reduce levels of soil contamination in silage this year.

In a lot cases, the practice of land rolling silage fields has to be sacrificed by the 'time poor' farmer.

Provided rolling is carried out at the correct stage of grass growth so as not to damage the grass plant and is used as a method of levelling the field but not compacting the soil, ash contents in silage can be vastly reduced.

Silage making is not a cheap exercise when fertiliser costs, high machinery/ contractor charges and in a lot of cases land rental costs are all factored in. Every effort should be made to reduce unnecessary losses during ensiling. To do this, the primary aim is to produce a stable, well fermented forage with a pH of 3.8 - 4.1.

Given the reliance on stable weather conditions at the time of harvest to maximise grass sugar levels and the fact that the Irish weather is so unpredictable, a lot of consideration should be given to the use of an appropriate additive.

Reputable brands of silage additives can play a key role in improving fermentation, lowering dry matter losses and improving digestibility.

While they will add to the cost of silage making, in the overall scheme they provide an excellent return.

There is ample time between now and your first cut silage date to discuss the option of silage additives with your supplier and contractor.

This is not a topic that should be first discussed on the day of broken weather when the harvester is about to enter the silage field.

Put simply, cutting date is the biggest determining factor in the resulting silage energy and protein level.

Observing grass covers and growth stage of the plant are the most accurate indicators as to when grass should be cut as opposed to working off a traditional target date for harvesting.

Grazing principles

Using the grazing principles, harvesting lighter covers will ensure better quality, faster regrowth and an increase in the overall dry matter produced per hectare.

All beef farmers should target to make grass silage with a minimum of 70pc dry matter digestibility, pH 3.8 - 4.1 and ash contents below 7.5pc.

Usually at this time of year excess stocks of fodder beet, maize silage and hay, straw etc are available throughout the country.

Obviously this year is an exception with most excess fodder stocks well depleted before Christmas.

A lot of fodder beet remains to be harvested, so this is one feed that should be available if required.

In the main growing regions, beet is currently trading at an average of €45 - €50 per tonne, excluding delivery.

Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

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