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Monitor forage costs to ensure profitable feeding this winter

There is something pleasant about watching cattle feeding. Contentment exudes as they munch until their large appetite is satisfied. The only pity is the cost when this munching is done in the shed rather than at grass.

Again, as we approach winter, the challenge is to get best value out of the homegrown fodder and to bring in value where feed has to be purchased.

Take the farm grass silage. After the effort and cost to make top quality silage, too often we can end up feeding a poor product.

Silage can deteriorate at the face of the clamp. It can get affected in the bottom of troughs. It will certainly deteriorate in the poorly managed round feeders.

To get top performance from silage, animals need to be presented with fresh wholesome silage every time they go to the trough.

Just like humans, animals do not like to see the remnants of yesterday's dinner on today's lunch plate.

It's very hard to keep silage fresh when feeding too few cattle from a large exposed silage face. Shear grabs are a help in reducing secondary fermentation. Dutch farmers tend to make long low silage clamps to minimise waste when they are opened. Many Irish farmers have stayed with the apparently more expensive big bale silage because of the reduced losses at feeding time. Teagasc Grange's Dr Padraig O'Kiely feels that all silage making farmers should include some big bales as it gives flexibility if only part of the herd has moved onto winter feed.

At research level, some of the best performances on silage were measured in cases where silage supply was tight and cattle were offered just under rather than over their predicted daily intake. The result of the slight restriction was that silage was fed fresh.

I am not a great fan of sending silage samples away for analysis, since much of the evaluation can be done at home. When the silage has been made on the farm, you know the cutting date and leafiness of the sward. You can assess preservation by the smell and the pH with a strip of litmus paper. An estimate of dry matter can be made by wringing a handful of silage.

All of these can be combined to give a good estimate of quality. This figure will not be perfect but the lab analysis can also be inaccurate. With the analysis, there will be sampling errors. Silage can deteriorate on the way to the lab. There will be a range of error in the lab test as well. At the end, you are still left with the same clamp of silage and if your feeding management is deficient you will not reach the growth targets in any event.

However, there is one exception to this reluctance on forage analysis. This is where you are buying silage or taking a yard with silage as part of the deal. Silage is not a cheap feed. On dairy farms silage continues to be a core feed but beef farmers are tending away from grass silage especially for the finishing cattle.

At a recent meeting on winter beef in Kilkenny, Teagasc estimates suggested that even at a cost of €240/t for a beef ration, finishing cattle on a short sharp period of ad-lib meals was more cost effective than finishing them on a mix of silage and meals.

When it comes to assembling cattle rations, energy content is the driver for beef production rather than protein, the same meeting was told.

Over the past couple of weeks, feed ingredient prices have started to fall. Teagasc feed specialist Dr Siobhan Kavanagh reckons that currently:

•Distillers grain is the most competitive protein source.

•Soya hulls are better value than citrus or sugarbeet pulp this autumn as a quality fibre source.

•Barley is the best value high energy feed.

A ration of 55pc barley, 20pc distillers and 25pc soya hulls plus minerals/vitamins is well suited to beef.

Farmers are successfully finishing young bulls on rations comprised of 70pc barley, 20pc citrus pulp (or soya hulls) 10pc soyabean meal plus minerals and vitamins.

Prices on offer for bulk straights in recent weeks have soya bean at closer to €350 than €300/t and soya hulls at about €180/t.

I have heard of prices as low as €190/t for rolled barley but buyers need to be know whether the barley has been dried to 14-15pc moisture or been stored at 19-20pc moisture and treated with propionic acid. The latter should cost at least €10/t less than dried rolled barley.

Also what about barley quality as measured by bushel weight?

Pig feeders make every effort to purchase well-filled barley or wheat which is high in bushel weight. Cattle farmers should do the same.

In recent years, there has been an increase in farm-to-farm trading in cereals. A lot of farmers have either taken their own barley or purchased barley off the combine, given it a once-off treatment, which has made it storable and ready to use for the winter.

This once-off treatment includes dry rolling, usually with a mobile crimper capable of treating 10-12t/hr and adding propionic acid as it is rolled. This process costs about €25/t including acid and rolling but the feeder has an excellent feed which will store for the winter. There is the added advantage in that the acid repels birds and vermin.

A further development in the once-off treatment is to add in feed grade urea, which helps both preservation and raises the effective protein content of the cereal. Using an additive termed Home'n'Dry (urea plus enzyme plus soya) on cereal coming off the combine at the normal 16-20pc moisture can be crimped/rolled and then stored for use.

In this case, the crimped and treated material must then be sealed under plastic for up to six weeks, during which time the additive is believed to lift the protein by about 4pc.

After the six weeks, the covers can be removed and the product will store in an open shed almost indefinitely. Again, the product repels the starlings and the rats and mice.

The Home'n'Dry additive costs about €29/t plus another €14/t for crimping.

Maxammon is another urea-based cereal preservative which has recently come onto the Irish market.

Marketed by Tom McDonnell, of Marksville Farm, Co Louth, it costs about €21/t plus the crimping. Again, the treated grain must be clamped but it is reckoned that a loose cover is adequate and the grain is ready to use within two weeks. The promoters claim a 4pc lift in protein and again the vermin are repelled.

Can I wish you all profitable feeding along with the happy cattle.

Indo Farming