Some simple steps can greatly increase your silage quality

Formula: Soil or crop limitations won’t always lead to poor silage but they will lead to inconsistent and unpredictable yields
Formula: Soil or crop limitations won’t always lead to poor silage but they will lead to inconsistent and unpredictable yields

Padraig O’Kiely

Silage is a crucial part of the success of any livestock farm, so it can be hugely frustrating when it goes wrong, usually due to that key factor that no farmer has any control over – the weather.

So how come there are farmers out there who invariably succeed in making enough good quality silage to meet requirements while others struggle for a quality cut?

The consistency of the successful farmers suggests that it is not a matter of luck or random chance. Instead, there is a formula that seems to win out in almost every circumstance. What's their secret?

1. Soil and crop

These are the foundations of consistently good silage. Regardless of the soil type you are farming, it must be adequately drained and be able to provide the nutrients required for optimal plant growth.

In particular, phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) should be at soil index 3 and a pH of around 6.3 (for mineral soils).

Similarly, the species of grass that you grow will influence how well the silage preserves. Ryegrasses are currently the best species for preservation.

These foundations come at a price, so you need to be prepared to spend money and also invest time on maintenance.

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Soil or crop limitations won't always lead to poor quality silage, but they will lead to inconsistency and unpredictability.

2. Facilities

Good facilities make it much easier to minimise wastage and to optimise labour efficiency. The latter then frees up time for management activities such as acquiring knowledge and business planning.

The type and scale of facilities needed will vary. In many cases they can be relatively simple, provided they conform with regulations and meet the current and projected needs of that farm, .

3. Acquiring and utilising knowledge

Know what does and doesn't matter for each aspect of making and feeding silage – what are the principles involved at each stage and how do you fulfil them in practice?

Well-stocked farms where silage yields and quality are rarely a problem always have a considerable amount of critically important information readily available. Examples include:

* Recent P, K and pH status of each field

* Amounts and timings of N, P, K, lime, and slurry applications to each field

* Seed mixtures and seeding rates used – the best farmers will often formulate a mixture for their own specification rather than simply taking what is available. Some even formulate mixtures to match the requirements and characteristics of different fields.

* Grazing dates, closing dates and harvest dates for each field

* Silage analysis of dry matter, energy (digestibility) and protein contents plus standard of preservation (pH and ammonia-N)

* Quantity of reserve silage carried over from year to year

* Requirement and allocation for each category of livestock

* There is often a good idea of grass yields from each field, the persistence of ryegrass within these fields, and losses at the silo, bale and feed trough.

4. A flexible plan

Because weather has such an impact on silage making, any plan must have inbuilt flexibility to respond to favourable opportunities or cope with difficulties. Note that this will require a good working relationship with the agricultural contractor.

5. A good attitude

This is the fundamental trait of the farmers who consistently make good silage.

They possess an enthusiasm to succeed, a clarity about what is required and they make timely decisions. They also have a commitment to reviewing, learning and wanting to do better.

  • Padraig O'Kiely is a Teagasc fodder specialist based in Grange, Co Meath

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