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Fascinating world of silage is changing all the time and it remains a massive business

It is said that the ladies around the farms prefer maize silage to grass silage because it is less smelly.

But, be it smelly or not, it is the grass silage which is dominant across Ireland. We make an estimated 20 million tonnes of the stuff each year. Silage is the flip side of grass, which, some argue, is our prime farming asset. Maize silage, in contrast, comes in at a mere 1m tonnes.

Silage is big business for Irish farming, bigger than the actual grain harvest. In Northern Ireland, with its longer winter feeding season, silage makes an even bigger impact in the farming calendar.

All the time, the approach to silage and silage making is changing in response to the changing attitudes and needs of the industry.

Not that long ago, the start of the silage season renewed a hot debate on silage additives and silage preservatives. This was an important market as manufacturers of acids, sugars, inoculants and enzymes jostled for their share of the action.

The industry and farmers used to wait for the definitive Teagasc approved list, which later became just a listing of the products with prices and suppliers. Selling the additives and preservatives must have been profitable if the number of suppliers on the Teagasc listing was anything to go by.

Now, according to Dr Padraig O'Kiely of Teagasc Grange, less than 5pc of grass is treated with anything at ensiling. Teagasc hasn't even published a listing of additive products for the past six years.

The big change has been driven by the silage contractor. The acid-based additives damaged their machines and all additives were only a nuisance which delayed their mad gallop from field to field. The fact that silage clamps were fast filled and covered helped to make better silage in the absence of preservatives of additives.

The switch to big-bale silage has also led to less interest in using additives. Instead, the grass is wilted pre-baling. This in itself helps preservation.

Also, the need to make quality silage diminished as more of it was being fed to dry suckler cows or dry dairy cows. With the emphasis on extended grazing, silage has become less important.

Indeed, when barley could be bought off the combine for €100/t, or even less, a lot of farmers were inclined to switch off grass silage altogether. Instead of feeding silage, beef finishers switched to straw plus ad-lib concentrates. In addition to being cost effective, this approach also improved the odour around the farmyard.

Once the beef finishers moved away from grass silage they were reluctant to go back, even though the cost of cereals has shot up. Instead, the bigger finishers are looking at byproducts, at sugar and fodder beet and also at maize silage and whole crop silage. For the coming season, some feeders are planning to ensile maize silage with chopped fodder beet at a ratio of about 50/50. This will make a high-quality fattening feed. The beet will escape the sort of frost damage seen in the past two years.

However, were the barley price to remain in excess of €200/t, Dr O'Kiely believes that this will trigger a new interest in silage quality and digestibility. He has noted new work in Norway where they are making silage of 80pc digestibility and this product is capable of fattening young dairy-bred bulls.

A common complaint this year concerns the rising costs of silage making; the cost of contractors, the cost of plastic covers and wrapping, and the cost of diesel.

There are a small number of self sufficient farmers who still make silage in an old fashioned way and in doing so have kept costs down. They have minded their machines such as pick-up wagons, double-chop, or even single-chop harvesters. By sharing them and working with neighbours the job takes longer but the silage cost is lower.

This year, a lot of good silage was made in early May, especially in Northern Ireland. However, the weather has since deteriorated and silage-making conditions have been poor, especially in the western half of the country. Indeed, some sort of preservation aid wouldn't go astray on a lot of the grass which was ensiled in recent days.

Silage research at Teagasc Grange is looking at whole crop wheat. Their latest grass treatment is evaluating this crop as a source of energy via biodigestion. At the moment, this is being done on a laboratory scale but a large farm scale biodigester is at an advanced stage of planning.

Biodigestion of farm crops and farm slurry has become a major activity on farms in Germany and in Northern Ireland, some large commercial biodigesters are under construction. Farmers with maize silage left over from last season are being canvassed about selling it for biodigestion.

The Republic, too, has a lot of grass which could be saved for biodigestion should this activity get adequate support. But don't hold your breath. The business is unlikely to get going without State support.

Finally, the topic of smelly silage jogs the memory of a man who broke wind while driving with his girlfriend. He was passing a mucky farmyard and had a brainwave about deflecting blame for the bad odour in the car.

"Isn't the silage a fright?" he said.

To which she replied: "It is indeed. Did you eat much of it?"

Indo Farming