Farm Ireland

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Ten ways to improve your silage harvest

The perfect cut of silage
The perfect cut of silage

Padraig O'Kiely

Teagasc expert Padraig O’Kiely has decades of experience in the science of silage — here’s his step-by-step guide to improving your silage harvest

1 Soil fertility

This is the single biggest factor in determining both the yield and quality of the silage you are going to make any year. Data shows that 90pc of the grassland on Irish farms is trying to grow in sub-optimal conditions. This will not only curtail the overall yield, but also the earliness of a suitable bulk to warrant calling the contractor. That extra week or fortnight can often be the difference between a crop that is cut before it gets too stemmy, and one that's after losing huge amounts of digestibility. Soil fertility indices of three should be the minimum target for every farmer serious about maximising grass growth. Don't forget that you need to keep soil pH at a minimum of 6.3 to allow the fertiliser to have maximum effect.

2 Reseed

The second most important influence on a silage harvest is the type of sward producing the grass. Old or unproductive swards lose out on several fronts. First of all, they give you less output per euro of fertilizer. But they also really suffer by not getting going as early in the spring -and growing on as late in the autumn- as a vigorous ryegrass. Most importantly from a silage-making perspective, though, is that ryegrasses have a much higher content of sugars than other grasses, so they are inherently much easier to successfully preserve as silage.

Many farmers are choosing to reseed in mid summer now to take advantage of the longest days, with a target turn-around of a paddock from last grazing to first reseed grazing in just 42 days.

3 Drainage

The aftermath of the wet summer of 2012 convinced many farmers looking at expansion of the merits of increasing the amount of drainage work.

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The cost of drainage work can easily become prohibitive, with wet land's capacity to take endless amounts of stone and piping when farmers get stuck into work. However, Teagasc have an extensive drainage programme that is trialing and monitoring different drainage schemes that have been tailored to individual farms on varying soil types.

While many involve investments of €2,000-3,000/ac, the experts involved believe that the increased productivity of the ground will often provide a return on the spend in 3-5 years.

4 Nitrogen at the right times and rates

Getting nitrogen out early enough and providing adequate amounts throughout the growing season is critical to ensure that you are getting the most from the other measures that you are taking with your grassland.

This means getting out the first bags in early February, maybe even in January if weather conditions are favourable. It also means that you can't skimp on nitrogen if cash-flow comes under pressure during the year. At the same time, this doesn't mean that you should throw any amount at it. Too much nitrogen can also hamper silage quality, so make sure you account for the nitrogen provided by slurry.

5 Closing up date

Closing up fields early enough is another crucial discipline for farmers looking to get an early cut of silage when grass digestibility is still at its peak.

Farmers need to be thinking about closing up first-cut silage ground by the end of March if they are going to get enough bulk in the sward by a May cutting date.

6 Harvest date

Harvest date must be appropriate for the varietal mix in your sward. For example a late ryegrass will need an extra week over an intermediate variety.

7 Pitting procedure

Attention to detail when sealing a silage pit is important to ensure that the maximum amount of your grass is of good feeding quality. It can be a delicate balance - ensuring that you spend enough time rolling the pit, without the process taking any longer than necessary.

8 Manage your face

There can be significant losses at the pit face, especially with higher drymatter silage, or silage being fed out at a slow rate in warm conditions, which can be a common occurrence on farms at this time of year. As with any of the previous points, it's wasteful to go to the trouble and expense of the other measures only to lose it all with lots of spoiled silage at feed-out. Shear-grabs are the optimum.

9 Ensure adequate feed space

Farmers are always surprised to learn that they don't have enough feeding space along the feed-rail, but it can be common, especially on farms where numbers have been expanding over the years. Make sure your animals can eat to appetite - otherwise the smaller and younger ones are going to suffer in terms of both yield and health.

10 Additives

Many silages can be successfully made without an additive. But additives do have a roll to play in different situations. For example, some additives can improve preservation, others reduce effluent, or slow heating at feedout.

But to improve the crop, you must know what you're working with, so a test to assess sugar levels is essential. Don't forget the option of wilting to help increase sugar content.


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