High Quality Forage: It’s Not Impossible

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by Alan Walker, BSc (Hons) Agr, P.A.S.
Silo-King® Specialist, Agri-King Ltd

Never before has agriculture had to endure as many constraints imposed on it, from carbon footprint, carbon sequestration, methane production, CO2, nitrogen and phosphorous restrictions, animal welfare, consumer trends, to name but a few.

As farmers, we strive to achieve and comply with many of the above.

In the world of pig and poultry production, feed efficiency remains the hallmark of profitability. Somehow within the dairy industry, the term feed efficiency only gets a mention, but the concept is hardly applied, even in higher-yielding herds. For dairy farmers, increased feed efficiency can only be obtained with the highest-quality forages, alongside excellent management, attention to detail and cow comfort.

The traditional spring calving herd does great work in producing high-quality grass and having it available for early turnout. However, when it comes to having high-quality conserved forage, we fall short. There is no substitute for high-quality forage for young stock and the milking herd. Milk from forage is the term most of us are familiar with and this is a good starting point in gauging profitability.

Working as an area manager sampling forages to balance feed programs and having sponsored and run silage competitions, it became very evident to me that the same farmers made excellent quality forage, the same made the good silage, and then there was the average silage.

What’s different? Well, they all received the same weather and similar soil types. The only thing different is the mindset.

There are a number of factors that come into play when achieving consistently high-quality forages. A good point to start is to look at your soil bases, which include phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulphur and sodium levels. Often it’s the calcium and sulphur levels we allow to drop. Calcium plays an essential role in both plant nutrition and soil health, while sulphur is essential for the formation of plant proteins, and is as important as phosphorous to the soil health.

A good reseeding programme should be also adopted, with a policy to have all fields on the farm in leys of less than 10 years. This can be achieved even on marginal land when one considers different methods now available.

As we approach the time for slurry spreading, and with trailing shoe methods replacing the splash plate, there are a few ideas we need to consider. Heavy applications (>3000gallons per acre) of thick cattle slurry applied with a trailing shoe, followed by a few dry days, can risk the slurry not getting washed down fully to the soil, and a slurry crust can form on top of the ground. As the grass is mowed, tedded and raked up, this slurry crust residue can get scraped up into the grass sward, ending up in the silage pit. High levels of ammonia, ash, clostridium, iron and butyric acid have often been reported in silage pits, a direct result of contamination. All of this is detrimental to good fermentation, palatable silage and animal health. Lower application rates of thinner slurry, spread more often after cuts and into September can alleviate the risk, so we need to be mindful of this.

All too often we tend to spread the same type and quantities of fertiliser. A nitrogen rate of 80 to 90 units/acre with a corrected soil analysis can yield as much and more quality grass, than the usual 100 to 120 units /acre that’s often applied. Money saved on the last 20 to 30 units of nitrogen can be better invested in other areas like lime application, aeration, subsoiling, soil analysis advice and weed control.

Up to this point, I briefly touched on some pointers that can be considered in the desire for this top quality silage. This leads us nicely to cutting date, and the conservation process.

It’s from this point, right to the milk tank, that Agriking’s offering can help the farmer increase feed efficiency and profitability. The industry accepts fermentation losses (silo losses) of up to 15% and again we can address this and minimise this significantly. It’s a huge cost in the process, but because the farmer doesn’t write a cheque for this directly, they do not see it as a cost.

Information on this page applies to UK/Ireland products only.