Joe Sheehy: Extra feed pays for itself and fits into silage plans

A lot of silage was fed in March and April, leaving very little reserves on most farms.

With grass growth at less than half the normal until May, there are some serious fodder problems on farms.

The difficult task of providing fodder for next winter is staring many farmers in the face, even though they may be struggling with providing sufficient grazing, due to extra ground being closed for silage.

Very few farmers had the opportunity to put best practice in place for providing adequate winter feed.

Best practice has generally been to close up at least 40% of grassland for first cut silage in early April. 

This provided the cheapest and best source of winter feed. 

A good crop of first cut in late May/early June costs only about half that of lighter late cuts on a digestible dry matter basis. 

Trials have shown that silage yields from ground that has been grazed two or three times during spring are likely to be only half that of silage yields grazed once in March, and this has to be taken into account when calculating winter feed budgets this year.

Unfortunately, grass was so scarce this year that it was almost impossible to close very much ground for silage on most farms in April or even early May.

Getting adequate quality grass into cows and replacements is the first priority.

However, compromises will have to be made on most farms, and higher than usual supplementation will have to be continued in order to provide reasonable quantities of silage. 

Farmers should ensure that adequate N, P, K, S, and lime are applied, in order to get the most from your land. 

(Do not apply lime now on areas that will be cut for silage, as there is a huge risk of it creating a high pH in the silage and damaging it.)

Data from Teagasc and laboratories around the country indicate a very serious deficit of P, K, and lime in Irish soils. This has to be rectified as soon as possible in order to make best use of N, for high yields.

In order to provide winter feed, some farmers will have to continue to feed more concentrates than normal.

Cows should not be forced to graze too tightly (under 3.5cm) as this will reduce grass growth and can have a serious affect on fertility and milk production.

While grass is scarce, an extra kilogram of meal costing around 20c should produce 1kg extra of milk worth about 23c, as well as keeping cows in proper condition for breeding and good health.

It will not be possible to provide adequate silage on many dairy farms, especially if they don’t have the normal supply of after-grass coming back into the grazing system in late June or in July.

Now is the best time to make provisions for next winter; as the year progresses, the options will become more difficult and costly.

Some farmers are depending on late cuts of silage to make up for any deficits in winter feeds. 

With proper application of fertilisers, this should be possible on medium and low stocked farms.

Avoid leaving crops bulk up too much. Leaving crops go more than one week after heading out is not adding any extra feed to the crop.

In fact, the amount of digestible feed is actually decreasing. In addition, serious damage is being caused to the sward and very little after grass will be produced.

About 80 units of N per acre (plus sulphur) is the general recommendation for later cut silage. 

However, a number of factors have to be considered before applying N for silage. 

Good-quality ryegrass pastures, especially those reseeded in the past four years, will respond to 20 units more than poor quality, old, low-ryegrass pastures, and of course, they yield around one third more silage.

Where there is likely to be a winter feed scarcity, all possibilities should be considered.

These include reducing the stock on the farm, using optimum levels of fertilisers, growing catch crops on dry land, renting land or purchasing growing silage crops, purchasing wholecrop cereals or maize or other fodder, such as beet.

Feeding reduced silage with a few kilograms of concentrates may be an option where forage is scarce.

Your winter feed budget, including these options and others, should be discussed in detail with your adviser now.

It is in general a whole new winter feed situation, and the best solution to winter feed problems will vary from farmer to farmer and area to area. 

Growing alternative forages is a real possibility on dry land that can be grazed in the autumn and winter.

Unfortunately, this is not a good option in most wet land areas where they are needed most. 

In these areas, reducing stock and making arrangements to buy in fodder will be the only solution, but discuss the value of fodder crops with your adviser before buying.

Kale is an excellent catch crop to fill the feed gap on dry land, and can provide up to 2.5 tonnes of high-quality dry matter per acre (utilised) for a cost of €250 to €300. 

Ideally, it should be sown in July on ground that needs reseeding. Rape can be sown in September, but has lower yields.

The bad spring weather has emphasised the importance of having plenty winter feed.

It will be difficult to provide the recommended 20% more silage than required in the pits in an average year, but this should be done as soon as the opportunity arises.


Grassland management continues to be a priority for all farmers. Not only does it affect production, but also fertility, and the general good health of animals.

The higher the proportion of leaf in grass, the higher the amount of energy it will supply. In a well managed grazing system, the sward should be green to the base. 

When the cows leave a paddock, it should be green and ready for re-growths. This can be achieved by letting cows into relatively low covers of 1,250kg to 1,400kg DM/ha.

If pre-grazing covers are too high, it will be difficult to graze out properly, and the paddocks will have a whitish appearance after grazing.

The average farm cover in the grazing area should be 160kg-170kg DM per cow.

Grass growth can vary a lot during June and July, and needs constant observation.

If paddocks are getting too strong before cows, take them out and cut for silage as soon as possible, and have them available for the next rotation.

Some farmers keep too much grass in front of cows, and this results not only in poor quality grass, but also requires a lot of topping and waste of feed.

Some topping is necessary on most farms, but it should be kept to a minimum through good management.

Topping should be done very tightly; high topping is worse than no topping, as it only cuts off green material and leaves stemmy material.

Grass v Silage

Grazed grass is the best and cheapest feed. The target set by most top farmers on reasonably good land is to produce 85%-90% of milk from grass (including grass silage) at a stocking of 2.5 cows per hectare.

Top farmers are achieving 85% of total feed as grass and silage. However the proportion of feed that comes from grazed grass as compared with silage makes a huge difference to the economics of milk production. 

There is an average loss of about 20% of nutrients when grass is converted into silage, as well as very significant costs. Therefore, the aim must be to maximise the amount of grazed grass in the diet, and minimise the losses in silage making.


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