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Gerry Giggins: Majority of our beef farms are still failing to hit silage quality targets


2018 Beef Farmer of the Year, John Phelan, is maximising the output from the grazing area on his Kilkenny farm

2018 Beef Farmer of the Year, John Phelan, is maximising the output from the grazing area on his Kilkenny farm

2018 Beef Farmer of the Year, John Phelan, is maximising the output from the grazing area on his Kilkenny farm

For those that didn't have to rehouse livestock in advance of, or because of, the inclement weather in early April, it has been an ideal spring for grass growth and cattle performance.

If we could only place an order on this type of spring every year, it would certainly make farming a lot simpler.

It is always amazing to see the transformation store cattle, cows and calves make after just a short while at grass.

Twinned with this, the picture-perfect image of healthy, contented animals at pasture when compared with beef production systems in other countries around the world, really should command a significant price premium for our livestock (that debate is for another day).

I recently visited the farm of John Phelan, the 2018 winner of the Farming Independent Beef Farmer of the Year.

Despite his farming system of store to beef finishing undergoing a very difficult period in recent years, John is still striving to make improvements within the farm gate.

He finishes continental-bred heifers both off grass and on an indoor-finishing system. John has mastered a lot of the skills surrounding grassland management and rotational grazing techniques that have help him maximise performance and output from his grazing area.

Setting the bar for many beef farmers, John has consistently been making top quality grass silage.

It is at this time of year that the effects of high quality silage becomes clearly visible with excellent weight gains and lower concentrate consumption over the winter months.

The Phelans will target to produce silage with 75pc+ DMD, protein levels exceeding 14pc, pH within the ideal range of 3.8-4.1, and dry matters between 25pc and 30pc.

Unfortunately, this quality of silage is not being achieved on a large enough sample of beef farms throughout the country.

Farmers need to consider whether it is their grass variety, contractor availability, cutting date or soil fertility that is preventing them producing high quality silage.

The cost to produce 65pc DMD grass silage is the same as the cost to produce 75pc DMD grass silage. In simplistic terms, finishing heifers being fed 65pc DMD grass silage will require 1.1 tonne of concentrate over a 120-day finishing period.

The same heifers being fed 75pc DMD grass silage will require 600kg of concentrate over the same 120-day finishing period. Given current concentrate prices, this difference in silage quality equates to €130 per animal.

With next winter's feeding in mind, some beef farms are already making silage bales from excess grazing grass.

Grass silage is produced primarily for its energy and protein content, not for its fibre or 'bulk'. As demonstrated above, the poorer the quality the more expensive the supplementation becomes.

A sharp focus of the mind towards having silage ground closed and fertilised at the right time, silage pits ready and having a conversation with your contractor about the likely cutting date will help towards producing higher quality forage.

I constantly repeat myself on these pages regarding the need for more beef farmers to embrace the benefits of using silage additives. Given the variability of our climate, silage additives should be widely used.

These additives are commonly mistaken as an unnecessary cost in the silage making process. A good silage additive will improve the rate of fermentation, reduce dry matter losses, improve the recovery of protein and energy, improve pit face stability and reduce feed out losses.

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Once these aspects are achieved, the cost of the additive is well and truly recovered. For those that haven't used additives since the days of corrosive liquid acids or applying molasses to pits, the technology has developed greatly.

Both liquid and dry powder forms of additives are now available and most contractors can handle these products easily and accurately.

Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

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