Never too early to plan this year's silage season

While some producers may be turning cows out for spring grazing, it’s never too early to start planning for this year’s silage making season. We caught up with ForFarmers’ Forage Product Manager, Mel Digger, to get her top-tips on how to optimise this year’s grass silage yield, quality and milk potential.

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No matter how many silage-making seasons a dairy farmer has under his or her belt, it’s always important to review the basics, pinpoint areas for potential improvement and ensure inoculant is on farm ready, explains Mel Digger.

“Grass silage is one of the most cost-effective feeds on any farm, so producing high volumes of good quality silage is key to supporting sustainable profitability. Producing consistent quality silage, with a high dry matter, will improve feed intakes, reduce bought-in feed costs and reduce a producer’s exposure to volatility of prices in the market.

“Now is a good time to start thinking about the season ahead. Farmers should review their silage production setup and make sure that everything – from cutting length to clamp management – is carried out with the optimum degree of accuracy and consistency. It’s vital that the nutritional quality of grass is maximised during the silage making process.”

Mel encourages producers to break down the silage making process into two overarching stages, with the first steps focusing on gaining as much feed value from the grass as possible and preparing for conservation.

“The second stage is all about ensuring that as much of this feed value is preserved as possible,” continues Mel. “Inoculants play an important role here. I would encourage every producer to treat their silage with an inoculant, to help maximise quality.”

The first stages: maximising feed value

Cutting grass at the optimum time will achieve the right balance between good grass yields and quality. While the temptation can be to delay harvest for higher yields, it’s vital that quality isn’t sacrificed.

“Cutting too late will result in a protein loss and lower digestibility value, which can fall by as much as 0.5 units per day after grass has headed,” says Mel. “Energy loss is also an important consideration. Based on a 1,000 tonne grass yield, there can be an energy difference of up to 300,000 MJ by cutting younger grass at 11.5 ME compared to 10.5 ME.

“Getting cutting height right is important too, with slightly longer chop lengths improving digestibility of grass silage. Cutting too low reduces digestibility and also increases the risk of soil contamination, which can lead to a poor fermentation in the clamp and lower feed value.”

After cutting, grass needs to be wilted as quickly as possible to reduce sugar losses, which can be as high as 6% over a 24 to 36 hour period.

“When harvesting, farmers need to remember the influence that chop length has on consolidation,” says Mel. “The longer the chop length, the longer it takes to remove air from the clamp. But go too short and it can cause problems when harvesting. For grass above 30% DM, aim for a chop length between 15 and 25mm and at DMs between 20 and 30%, a good length would be 25 to 50mm.”

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Stage two: preserving feed value

How grass silages are treated and ensiled should be the next elements that producers review, with both playing a vital role in helping preserve feed quality and value.

“If farmers have gone to the time and effort to produce high-quality grass, it’s essential that it’s productive potential isn’t wasted by poor ensiling protocols,” continues Mel. “Silage inoculants improve fermentation and quality by increasing the number of beneficial bacteria present during the ensiling process.

“Inoculants also help achieve a good fermentation, with a rapid drop of pH – ideally down to 3.7-4.2 pH – when grass is ensiled. This helps inhibit the growth of undesirable bacteria and moulds, such as clostridia and bacilli, as well as preventing protein and DM losses.”

“There are lots of silage inoculants available, so it’s important to choose ones that suit predicted feed requirements,” says Mel, “It’s also a good idea to get inoculant on farm ready before the silaging season starts. That way farmers can ensure they have their ‘number one’ pick of inoculant to hand, ready for prompt use during the ensiling process.

“Inoculants won’t help make poor quality silages good, but they do help make good quality silages better, and also if needed earlier than planned. With the potential to increase milk production by up to 1.5 litres per cow, per day, their positive impact shouldn’t be overlooked.”

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When it comes to clamping grass, Mel reiterates the importance of good consolidation and clamp sealing and encourages farmers to look back at their approach last year and think about any improvements they could make.

“When clamps are being loaded, aim for layers no more than 15cm deep, with each layer thoroughly consolidated before the next goes on top,” says Mel. “By getting as much air out of the clamp as possible – and this includes those tricky clamp edges – farmers ensure that the quality of silage fermentation will be maximised, and it also helps increase the aerobic stability of silage come feed out.”

Clamps should then be sealed effectively to prevent air getting in and the top of the clamp must be weighted to help maximise silage density.

“It’s too easy to approach silage making in the same way as previous years,” concludes Mel. “Taking the time to review your approach, and doing this review process early, can often help highlight areas for improvement.

“With increasing feed and input costs, now more than ever, farmers need to be following the steps outlined above to produce the best homegrown forages possible to help sustain their businesses for the year ahead.”

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