Waste not, want not - Step-by-step guide to conserving and making the most of silage stocks

Anthony O'Connor

Silage has started to be fed on numerous farms since late September due to the deteriorating weather in many parts of the country. Silage stocks may become scarce on farms as the winter progresses so farmers need to aim to avoid silage losses during housing period.

The key here is to minimise aerobic deterioration of silage at any time. Waste not, want not.

At Silage Pit Face

Ensure Shear Grab is well maintained, in perfect working order with good hydraulic pressure. Blades to be kept sharpened, tines need to be secure and steady. Regular maintenance is needed.

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Use any silage or silage bales left over from last year first. Ensure there are no moulds on silage. Dump any bales with excessive moulds.

Use any baled silage on farm first for housed stock. Avoid opening silage pits until there is enough stock in sheds to move across the entire face of the pit when removing a full line of silage blocks. Moving too slowly across the pit face will lead to aerobic deterioration of silage across the pit face.

Keep silage pit face straight, neat and tidy when cutting out blocks. This will help reduce aerobic deterioration. Any fallen silage from pit face or shear grab should be gathered up with a silage fork and fed to stock. This needs to be carried out after every use of the shear grab.

Avoid rolling back the cover too much on top of pit, just roll back enough for one line of blocks to be taken.

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Keep rolled back cover tight on top of pit and on both sides.

Silage Bales

Any purchased bales, or bales from last year, should be used first. The bale cover and netting needs to be completely removed from the silage bale before bringing it to the feeding area.

Any loose silage caught in netting needs to be removed and then brought to feeding area. Likewise any fallen silage from bale or bale handler should be gathered up and fed on the day.

Silage in Sheds

Ideally, stock need to be consuming fresh silage every day, with fodder in front of them at all times. It is important that blocks cut from silage pit face be left in front of stock in the same condition as they were cut from pit face. Do not break up block or bale.

Ensure floor area is dry, clean and clear of old waste silage. Remove dock stalks etc before placing block or bale there. The feeding area should be cleared of waste silage at least once a week.

Best suggested practice with silage blocks is to cut block from pit face, transport it to the shed, leave on floor area where required.

It can be pushed in with the next incoming block on the shear grab. This reduces aerobic deterioration of silage in blocks or bales. It is important to limit the amount of silage exposed to the air.

Reducing Silage Wastage in Sheds

If filling shed with silage, only bring enough for five to seven days at most, pushing the silage in when required.

Alternatively, silage bales or blocks can be bought in whenever stocks are short.

Try not to place block or bales too close to stub walls, stock may have difficulty reaching it and pulling it in to their mouths.

Likewise, keep bales or blocks away from entrance and rear doors of sheds, rain may be blown in. Stock will not consume wet silage.

Also, silage may be pushed out under doors by cattle's snouts. Avoid placing blocks or bales too close to water bowls on stub walls at girders. Cattle lapping water will splash water onto the silage.

Silage Rationing

Keep an eye on the amount of silage being used as the winter progresses. If you think you are going to be short, then organise a plan to stretch silage stocks by limiting some animals' intake.

Weanlings, stores can be restricted; they will recover any weight loss in summer next year through compensatory growth. However, suckler cows need to have fodder in front of them at all times. Restricting cows' intake could lead to problems at calving time and cows returning to heat post calving.

Leafy silage with high dry matter delivers big results

The research shows that the benefits include shorter days to finish (lower total silage DM required), lower daily concentrate intakes to achieve target daily gains, and lower fixed costs (slurry, labour, overheads etc). Similar benefits are incurred with higher DMD silage fed to weanling cattle.

Dry suckler cows in good BCS require lower-DMD (66-68) silage.

For milking cows, Teagasc says the benefits of higher DMD silage are improved forage intake, more milk solids and milk from forage, better rumen health and lower concentrate feeding levels.

Cows fed high-quality silage (75+ DMD) require 3-4kg less concentrate to achieve similar milk solids output than cows fed average quality (69 DMD) silage. Dairy heifers fed >70 DMD silage have improved daily gains during their first winter.

Silage DMD for dry cows depends on BCS at drying off and duration of dry period.

Silage Sampling and Analysis

Poor sampling technique is one of the main causes of unreliable silage analysis results, the Teagasc best practice guide states.

Wait 5-6 weeks after ensiling to take the samples.

Ideally use a long core sampler to sample 3-5 points from well spaced points on or between diagonals on the pit surface as per diagram. Core to within 0.5m of the pit floor.

Alternatively sample an open pit by taking nine grab samples in a 'W' pattern across the pit face. Where high performance diets are being fed (e.g. finishing cattle, fresh milking cows) it is advisable to repeat sample at four-week intervals if using this method.

Discard the top 100mm of each core before mixing into a composite sample. The final sample should weigh approximately 500g.

Exclude air, seal well and post immediately. Avoid posting samples late in the week.

A standard silage sample from a 500t pit represents about 0.0001pc of fresh material available - ensure that a standard procedure is followed to generate representative samples.

Reducing DM losses at harvest and feed-out is often overlooked as a potential means of improving silage value.

High losses add significantly to the cost per tonne of silage fed, and increase requirement for purchased feed.

Teagasc research shows that the main sources are poor aerobic stability (poor fermentation), failure to seal pits fully, excessive pit face exposure to air and waste at the feed barrier. Silage moulds can be dangerous to cattle, adding to losses.

To control losses

  • Fill pit quickly, exclude air and seal fully.
  • Don't over-wilt. Very dry silage may heat in air.
  • Minimize pit face time exposure to air.
  • Manage losses at barrier-feed silage three times weekly at a minimum. Remove silage refusals regularly.
  • Pit silage losses can be high in warm weather. If possible, use high-DMD bales when summer buffer feeding is required.
  • Leafy silage with high dry matter delivers big results

Anthony O'Connor is a recently retired Teagasc advisor

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