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Radical review of forage production and planning is needed to avoid a repeat of recent fodder crisis

The spring weather has finally arrived and grass growth has started to reach normal levels on most farms and grass availability is now almost matching demand.

First-cut silage is two to three weeks behind normal cutting dates and this will have a major effect on next winter's forage supply.

With silage reserves wiped out on most holdings, farmers need to plan for the coming year to supply enough forage for the winter and, where possible, to replenish stocks so as to avoid a repeat of this year's events.

A radical review of forage production and management is required if this goal is to be achieved.

Some practices can be easily implemented and these will help build up forage reserves. These include:

nImmediately supplementing forward beef animals at grass with concentrates to ensure an early finish and a reduction in stocking rates;

nHarvest silage crops at an early stage so as to attain high quality forage (not bulk) and to avail of a second cut;

nIncrease the use of by-products where available;

nConsider sowing a suitable whole crop or cereal catch crop and combine with under- sowing;

nMake provision to include straw for dry cows and young stock next winter;

nTime is getting on, but it's still not too late to grow an alternative forage crop such as maize;

nFarmers could sow high yielding, short-term leys such as Westerwold and slightly longer term Italian ryegrass and hybrid ryegrasses;

nIf the growing of any of these alternatives are proving difficult, consider having a crop grown under contract.

When suggesting that silage crops are cut at an early stage, as part of a two-cut system, I am frequently met with the argument that with high fertiliser and contractor costs a two-cut system is not justified on most beef farms.

Generally, a two-cut system will provide 20-30pc more silage DM/hectare than a one-cut system.

With the improvement in silage quality, there will be almost a 50pc increase in the MJ of energy produced per hectare.

In any winter feeding strategy, high quality grass silage will replace more expensive concentrate input and therefore reduce the winter feeding cost.

High quality by-products such as brewers' grains and wet distillers are currently scarce and in strong demand.

They normally represent very good value for money, provided they are purchased over the summer period.

In addition, they must be stored correctly so as to reduce wastage and fed at the appropriate levels to the various categories of stock.

Most of these moist or wet products need to be stored along with an absorbent such as soya hulls, beet pulp or citrus pulp. This will ensure the minimum amount of waste.

A lot of individual farmers have reacted to the next winter's potential forage shortage by reverting back to growing maize, despite the fact that is was one of the crops that suffered most during last year's difficult summer.

Maize yields suffered most, with reductions of 30-40pc on maximum potential.

Quality in terms of starch and dry matter, when grown under plastic, held up to expectations in most cases.

The latest sowing date for maize is May 20. Provided a suitable site is selected and the ground is now prepared, there is still some time left for sowing.

There may be limitations on varieties but speaking to your seed supplier will guide you as to what your best variety option is.

The sizable increase in the area of maize sown this year means that there will be opportunities to purchase it this autumn.

It can be transported cost effectively, provided it is bought on a transparent basis, with starch and dry matter being the most critical features.

Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist and can be contacted at

Irish Independent