Silage quality has never been more important - so what can you do about it?

Cost of achieving animal performance is far less when young top quality grass silage is fed, says independent ruminant nutritionist Brian Reidy
Silage quality has never been more important - so what can you do about it?

Contractor Mark Troy, Knockroe, Bandon & Neilus Lehane, pictured harvesting silage for Laurance Buckley, Begley's Forge, Kilumney, Co Cork. Picture: O'Gorman Photography

A good bit of silage has been cut in the south of the country. Quality from these cuts will be fantastic once they are ensiled properly. 

As we all know, concentrates will be expensive and we need to try and offset this by getting more animal performance from our homegrown forages.

Despite it only being early May, some heavier crops had even lodged and needed to be taken out before the base starts to deteriorate. Sugars are reasonable in grass tested before cutting, but in reality, all early cut silages would benefit from an additive. 

Unsettled weather has slowed down silage-making progress. Keep an eye on the forecast and grab any available window to get quality in the pit or bales.

Silage cutting: Decisions to be made

In particular, many beef producers are still considering holding on for a big first-cut; however, the aim of producing top-quality feeding must not be ignored. 

Obviously, you need a full pit to get through next winter, but you also need to consider what quality you have and its impact on animal performance and subsequent balancing costs.

For dairy producers, there seems to be more focus on quality to produce more milk on the shoulders of the lactation with fewer concentrates. 

The amount of silage you are carrying over from last winter should also be taken into consideration when deciding when to take your cut of silage. The vast majority of yards would have a significant carryover of silage after last winter and shouldn’t necessarily be chasing bulk this year.

Over previous years, many who delayed their first-cut until late May or early June for bulk ended up with a poor second cut due to the drought conditions in late June and into July. 

The decision to take a first cut earlier in May also results in you being able to take a third cut if you require it. This would result in optimising the amount of top-quality grass ensiled per acre available.

The benefits of quality silage

Of course, the minute anyone suggests early cuts and multiple cuts it is claimed that it costs too much. 

Interestingly, every time I model early cuts and multi-cuts versus late and heavy cuts, the cost of achieving animal performance is far less when young top quality grass silage is fed.

Earlier and lighter cuts will always be better quality once the sward is relatively young, fresh and has had sufficient nutrients applied to it. Top-quality silage will mean less concentrates being required for next winter.

It is also worth noting that early cuts of young grass will have a higher crude protein percentage. This will mean cheaper concentrates, lower in protein will be required next winter for all classes of stock. 

Quality is an important factor with silage.
Quality is an important factor with silage.

A high energy silage with 15-16% protein would mean sucklers, weanlings and finishers needing zero concentrates, while dairy cows would require far less meal in late lactation once housed and again in early lactation next spring.

The amount of nitrogen spread on silage ground earlier in the year will have to be taken into consideration when deciding on your cutting date. It may seem obvious but well-preserved silage is also critical as you can’t afford any waste. 

Well preserved silage does not just happen, however. 

Fertiliser volume and application date along with cutting time and date determine preservation every bit as much as pit management. Grass should where possible never be on the ground for more than 24 hours.

Over wilting, as many have learned in the last few years, is not a good idea. Dry silages do not always feed out well as they are very hard to manage in the pit. 

Good pit management at ensiling is critical and needs a lot of care and attention, as filling pits too fast will result in poor consolidation, with too much air in the pit causing spoilage. Pits should be sealed as soon as possible once rolled sufficiently.

Silage additive on early cuts

As I mentioned above, the use of an additive is also worth considering, particularly if you are ensiling young leafy material.

Additives which prevent silage from heating at feed-out will optimise the amount of silage eaten by stock and the feed value they extract from it.

Silage additives are designed to enhance the natural fermentation rate and speed up the pH drop resulting in a more stable clamp. 

Remember that an additive will help make good grass into good silage, it will NOT make bad grass into good silage! An additive will only work if it is applied correctly.

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