Dairy: Make the most of the current opportunity to harvest quality silage

Sean Moher, Croughmore, Mitchelstown winner of the Dairygold Milk Quality Awards is pictured on his farm with Willie Ryan, Dairygold. Photo O'Gorman Photography.
Sean Moher, Croughmore, Mitchelstown winner of the Dairygold Milk Quality Awards is pictured on his farm with Willie Ryan, Dairygold. Photo O'Gorman Photography.
Joe Kelleher

Joe Kelleher

The spring of 2016 will be remembered as long, cold and wet. But what have we learned from it and what can we do to future proof ourselves against similar scenarios in years to come?

Cows spent much of this spring going in and out of sheds, yo-yoing between a silage diet and a grass diet with varying degrees of supplementation. A total of 44mm of rainfall was recorded in West Limerick on the weekend of April 10 resulting in cows having to be re-housed on most farms for a few days afterwards.

A few farmers I spoke with at the time mentioned how the drivers collecting the milk mentioned that milk supplies had nosedived in the space of a few days around this time.

Protein levels also took a hammering, dropping to close to 3pc on many farms.

But why did this happen? Is the difference between the quality of grazed grass and that of silage so great to cause this huge drop in performance?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question on many farms is yes.

Grazed grass generally has a feeding value in excess of 80pc DMD, good leafy silage around 75pc and strong first cut silage with a lot of stem will be around 65pc DMD.

A cow housed full time would milk approximately 4l less on the 65pc DMD silage than on the 75pc DMD silage, due to the combination of lower intakes and lower feeding value. Supplementing with 3kgs of extra concentrate would be required to compensate for this drop in silage quality. Therefore the key to avoiding a drop in production is to have sufficient quantities of high quality silage available to the dairy cow when milk is being produced off silage.

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For farmers on heavy soils, the aim should be to have 10t of fresh silage per cow and 4t of this should be 70pc DMD.

For those on more free draining soils, the target should be 8t fresh silage and 3t should be 70pc DMD. If the average silage bale weighs 1t, then we need to be aiming for the equivalent of three to four high quality bales per cow.

For the 100 cow farmer this would mean gathering up 300-400 bales, but is this realistic?

One farmer I spoke with last week already had 25pc of his first cut ground cut and put in at the back of the pit with aim of feeding it as a buffer feed next spring to reduce the need for concentrates.

His long term aim was to construct a smaller pit specifically for high quality silage separate from the main crop. Should we all be aiming to put a portion of high quality first cut at the back of the pit? If so, it needs to be done this week.

Cutting date has a major impact on silage quality. It is very rare to see a June cut silage with a DMD of 70pc. Once the first seed heads appear, the crop is probably at 75pc DMD, when half have appeared it has probably dropped to 70pc DMD.

Today, most silage fields are probably somewhere between those two figures.

The main argument for not cutting silage until early to mid-June is that the contractor is charging €100-120 per acre and unless the volume is there, then it becomes very expensive silage.

Some contractors are willing to cut early silage for rates similar to that of second cut silage. Talk to your contractor.

Grass growth has turned around dramatically in the space of a fortnight.

Heading into May, growth was struggling to around 30kgs dry matter per hectare (DM/ha), whereas for the past week growth rates have being hitting around the 100kgs DM/ha on many farms, with the result being that many farms have gone from a severe deficit to an abundant surplus in two weeks.

Growth rates in excess of 90kgs/ha will allow the farm to be temporarily stocked at 5LU/ha.

Walk the farm twice weekly while growth rates are this high and act fast. Cut surplus paddocks before they hit 30 days of growth.

There is presently an opportunity to accumulate some quality silage for next winter/spring. Take the opportunity while it is there.

Joe Kelleher is a Teagasc advisor based in Newcastle West, Co Limerick

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