This year every single blade of grass will have to be minded
I saw fields that had been cut for silage last week near Carlow. I rubbed my eyes and looked again to ensure it wasn't a dream. The contractor described the yield as "quite good on one field and light on the other".
In this most challenging of years, I'm sure that, if the farmer wished to sell this silage immediately, he would have lots of customers.
Just how challenging is 2013?
Teagasc Grange's Eddie O'Riordan has been recording weekly grass growth at the research farm for over a decade. Up till late April, the 2013 growth was consistently the lowest on record for every week of the spring. Other years had some bad growth weeks, but these were interspersed with bursts of growth. 2013 had sustained lack of growth.
The upshot is that by late April the Grange farm, which on average would have grown 1.6t of grass dry matter per hectare, has only cumulative growth of 0.5t of dry matter per hectare in 2013.
From mid-April to mid-May, grass growth at Grange continued well behind average. Also soil temperatures have dropped from the 13C reached in early May to 10C in mid-May. And Eddie O'Riordan is very aware that Grange is a relatively dry free draining farm. Growth is even more retarded on heavy wet soils.
The 2013 challenge is to have enough grass for grazing animals today, never mind replenishing forage stocks for the future.
The fallout from this spring has certainly put the spotlight right back on to silage. Teagasc's forage research specialist Padraig O'Kiely said that interest and inquiries about silage are back up to levels not seen for years.
"At 1.2m hectares, silage is by far Ireland's biggest harvested crop. In recent years, grazing has rightly received big emphasis but this should not take from good silage management," Mr O'Kiely said.
This is a year when every blade of grass earmarked for conservation will have to be minded. It's back to the first principles of silage-making. Basically the grass is preserved by converting the grass sugars to lactic acid. The faster this happens, the more efficient the process and the less the waste.
With pit silage, we're talking fast filling, quick and efficient sealing and the use of a preservative in difficult ensiling conditions. With baled silage, we're talking fast wilt and storage without damage to the wrapping.
While big bales seem to abound on every farm, Padraig O'Kiely reckons two thirds of Irish silage is still made in pits and one third in big bales. At one stage, 70pc of Irish silage was treated with a preservative or an additive to enhance quality.
In the early days of silage-making, a research farm in Liscombe, Somerset, England brought out a star system to guide farmers towards better quality silage and when to use a preservative.
The table identified the factors that influence silage preservation, such as grass dry matter, grass sugar level, grass variety, fertiliser use, prevailing weather, grass leafiness etc.
Stars were given for positive factors and deducted for factors that militated against good silage (See the table above).
If you have enough stars on any given day, you can get by without preservative. If you get a combination of the adverse factors, it can be better to pull out of the field altogether.
I reckon that the Liscombe Star System is still fully relevant today.
Wilting the grass before ensiling helps overcome a multitude of problems, especially the threat of low sugars and effluent.
If, when hand wringing grass, no effluent appears, the grass is 25pc higher in dry matter and effluent will be minimal.
I reckon the Scandinavians and the Dutch make the best silage in the world. After cutting leafy grass they will gently ted the grass twice in a day to get a fast even wilt. It helps if you have fine sunny weather.
Here's wishing you all a season of plentiful and good quality silage. This is critically needed for Irish farmers.
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