Could alternative fodder crops improve animal performance?

Gerry Giggins

Forage imports from the UK, France, Spain and further afield have been an unfortunate reality during two of the past five years.

For a country that prides itself on our grass-based livestock production this is a disappointing fact even if two extreme periods of weather have been largely to blame.

The emotional and mental strain experienced by farmers during these fodder shortages, as well as the economic losses, will take some time to overcome.

Dairy farmers were caught out this spring given the reliance and profitability of their systems on turning freshly calved cows out to fresh grass as early in the year as possible.

In most cases this date stretched well into April as opposed to the February-early March targets.

In the vast majority of cases, beef farms are operating with lower stocking densities than their dairy colleagues.

However, given the likelihood of silage cuts running later and yielding lower this year, the risk of further fodder shortages in 2018/ 2019 is a worrying possibility.

While the objective on most beef farms will be to replenish silage stocks, quality must not be compromised in order to obtain quantity.

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For a number of years, I have noticed a worrying trend with regard to silage quality nationally.

My observations are that we aren't harvesting good enough quality silage and that there are substantial losses of forage with regard to storage methods and at feed out.

The normal 4pc or 5pc dry matter losses that takes place during the fermentation process shouldn't be added to by insufficient compaction, delaying covering the pit, poor covering of the pit, damage to the cover or bale wrap and poor pit face management when the pit is opened.

Discussion on the ideal dry matter for grass silage should account for a happy medium between having minimal run-off in the form of effluent and no secondary fermentation at the time of feed out from overly dry silage.

In order to improve silage quality and yields over the course of the summer, beef farmers should look at a few different factors.

As we are all too aware, weather plays a major role in determining grass growth rates and harvesting date.

Every effort should be made to ensure that the silage is of consistent dry matter, energy and protein levels are optimised and that the correct pH is achieved for fermentation.


Getting soil conditions right, selecting correct grass varieties and working closely with contractors can mean silage of 75+ DMD, protein levels exceeding 14pc, pH within the target range of 3.8 - 4.1, and dry matters between 25pc and 30pc.

The use of an appropriate silage additive will ensure improved rates of fermentation, reduced dry matter losses, improved recovery of protein and energy, improved pit face stability and reduced feed-out losses.

Given the high possibility of grass silage being in scarce supply next winter, beef farmers should explore the option of an alternative fodder crop.

Maize silage, wholecrop cereals and fodder beet all offer excellent alternatives. On beef finishing farms, maize silage and fodder beet can not only extend grass silage supplies but improve animal performance.

Maize silage and fodder beet will both provide high dry matter yields, can be transported long distances, can be pitted and moved again and will provide excellent energy sources to finishing cattle.

On farms where dry cows are fed over the winter months, cereal wholecrop can help stretch existing grass silage supplies.

Livestock farmers should liaise with local tillage farmers to avail of their expertise in growing such alternative fodder crops on contract.

The need for accurate feed budgeting has never been as important as it is this year.

I would advise that this process is started immediately after the first cut of silage is taken.

This will allow for further planning on the ground to be closed for second-cut silage, the amount of straw required and whether an additional fodder source will be needed.

Where a wholecrop silage is to be made from a winter barley crop, then this will most likely take place in late June/early July. Winter wheat crops can be harveseted for wholecrop in late July/ early August.

While late-sown spring barley crops won't be ready to harvest for wholecrop harvest until late August.

Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

Indo Farming