Farm Ireland

Monday 19 March 2018

Why farmers are facing big deficits in forage quality and quantity

Aoibhinn Ring checks some of the cobs during the Goldcrop Maize and Beet variety open day on the farm of her dad Tony Ring, Ballinacrusha, Cobh, Co. Cork. Photo: Donal O' Leary

Gerry Giggins

The unrelenting rain of the last few weeks has finished any hope there was to off-set the housing of cattle.

I regularly carry out feed budgeting at this time of year and generally this does not pose much of a challenge.

This year, unfortunately, many livestock farmers will struggle to fulfil their silage requirements. There will also be challenges surrounding the balancing of the animal's protein and energy requirements due to poor quality and quantity of second cuts.

Another major trial will be to replace straw where it has previously been an essential part of an animal's diet.

Huge parts of the country, particularly the north-west will have huge deficits in forage quantity. The gaps between the very wet spells of weather have allowed some farmers to snatch the opportunity to make late silage. The damage evident in these fields suggests that this late silage won't be of high quality with issues such as soil contamination and poor mineral content.

Straw has become an essential part of the feeding programme on many livestock farms. It fulfils a very essential role in replacing grass silage in particular in winter dry cow suckler rations, helping to control body condition, reducing difficulties at birth, and generally improving the overall health of the suckler cow. However, this year, while the grain harvest has been very difficult for cereal farmers, it has been virtually impossible to save straw for feeding, in spring sown crops especially.

This has created a huge deficit in the straw available for feeding. In the average year when straw trades at €60-70 per tonne, feeding 3-5kg of straw per cow per day offers a good economic return. However this year in a lot of cases this is not an option.

Without sufficient straw, add-lib diets in particular will be hard to keep right. Rumen health is where straw has its biggest benefit. Straw is the most effective source of structural fibre.

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So the questions of can we do with less, and can we replace it, are occupying many of my discussions with clients these past few weeks.

In a number of finishing rations that I have formulated for clients this autumn, I have had to reduce straw from the desired 0.75kg/head/day to less than 0.50kg/head/day.

To overcome this, and to ensure rumen health, I am including both a rumen buffer and yeast as part of the mineral supplement pack.

Increasing the digestible fibre content of the diet will also decrease the risk of digestive upsets, but unfortunately in many cases this can reduce the energy density of the diet and thus reduce performance.

The most widely used and freely available source of digestible fibre has been soya hulls. Soya hulls have sharply increased in price over the past few months. It is unclear as to why this has happened but may be due to increased demand in China, currency fluctuations and lower production levels. The alternatives to soya hulls which I generally recommend, are beet pulp and rolled oats. Thankfully these will be lower in price than soya hulls - the old expression of 'an ill wind' comes to mind.

Replacing straw with a higher proportion of silage in fattening diets may also be a strategy that could be adopted on some farms.

Those in the fortunate position to have maize silage as part of their fattening diet, will be able to significantly reduce the straw requirement, using a 50:50 ratio of grass silage to maize silage.

A cautionary point on utilising straw as a feed source is to avoid straw that has any sign of mould.

A lot of straw has been baled damp and may appear on the exterior to be in perfect condition. However when bales have been opened for feeding, mould has been found.

I have anecdotal evidence of some importing straw from Spain - lets hope we don't have to revert to extremes like this as occurred in 2013.

Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

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