Maximising grass value from soil to silo

Bryan Buckley, Lallemand; David Gillespie, Portglenone; William Hamill, Coleraine and Brian Hunter, Armoy
Bryan Buckley, Lallemand; David Gillespie, Portglenone; William Hamill, Coleraine and Brian Hunter, Armoy

At a recent series of roadshow events United Feeds’ nutritionist Bobby Irwin highlighted the tremendous opportunity that exists for local dairy farmers to improve their grassland output.

“It is possible to produce 15t of grass dry matter per hectare here in Northern Ireland. However, average output from our dairy farmers is in the region of 7.5t/ha. On beef farms the equivalent figure is 4t/ha. Benchmarking figures highlight the positive association between milk from forage and net margin per cow values,” he said.

Gareth Clements, Portglenone; Steven Houston, Glarryford; Andrew Dale, Limavady; Brett Wesley, KaN Fertilisers

Gareth Clements, Portglenone; Steven Houston, Glarryford; Andrew Dale, Limavady; Brett Wesley, KaN Fertilisers

Bobby pointed out that since the year 2000 dairy cow numbers in Northern Ireland have risen from 285,000 to the current figure of 316,000 head.

He added: “Milk output per cow has increased from an average of 6,000L per lactation up to 7,500L during the same period but we continue to see a fall-off in milk from forage levels.”

The United Feeds’ nutritionist also flagged up the fact that the grassland area available to dairy farmers has contracted over the past number of years.

“This is due, in part, to development demands but more so because of the land requirements associated with anaerobic digesters. All of these factors have combined to put increasing pressure on farmers to improve their grassland management practises.”

He added: “The key to making this happen is for dairy farmers to put the challenge of optimising soil structure and soil fertility centre stage as they plan for the future. Only 18% of soils in Northern Ireland are at optimal fertility levels while 64% of our grassland area has a soil pH value of less than 6.0. These facts alone should give dairy farmers plenty of food for thought.”

Where silage making is concerned, Bobby reported that “forage quality has tended to level-off over recent years. Of greatest concern is the fact that protein levels in the silages made here in Northern Ireland have declined markedly, a trend that must be reversed,” he said.

Another speaker, Brett Wesley, KαN product specialist with Goulding NI, focused on soil health. He explained how “the extremely wet conditions that characterised the latter half of 2017 would have led to the almost complete leaching of all available nitrate and sulphate out of soils. This reality should be factored-in by farmers as they plan their 2018 fertiliser programmes.”

Brett stressed the importance of soils being at the proper pH.

He said: “Regular soil testing should be an integral part of all farm management programmes. The percentage of land with struggling pH levels outlined by Bobby shows we have huge scope for improvement. The key benefit of having soil pH at the required levels will be the optimal uptake of all applied nutrients. This principle holds equally well for slurry and farmyard manure along with bagged fertiliser.”

The K N representative said that “liming will have a four-year impact on soil pH values. In cases where soils are particularly acidic, the positive impact of lime on pH values will be almost immediate.”

Brett added that farmers who have not yet tried KαN fertiliser should do so this year. Due to the increased stability of KαN in the soil, reduced volatilisation means less ammonia emissions, but also that more of what is applied is used by the crop. A win:win scenario considering both the economic and environmental savings. Local trials at AFBI have proven KαN to have the highest nitrogen use efficiency when compared to CAN or urea, validated by the same if not better yields.

Lallemand’s Bryan Buckley told the meeting attendees that cutting early and often should be the silage making mantra adopted by Northern Ireland’s dairy farmers.

“In practical terms, this means getting the year’s first crop ensiled at the end of April,” he said. “Such an approach will help drive forage quality and animal performance post feed-out.” He added: “Working in this way also helps farmers get around the unpredictability of the local weather. There is a better chance of hitting a dry, sunny spell earlier in the season. The risk of not getting silage made or ensiling very poor crops is greater if cutting is left until late in the season. This point was proven extremely well, and to many farmers’ cost in 2017.”

Bryan went on to confirm the benefit of a 24-hour wilt post cutting. “However, if grass is left in the field for more than a full day, shattering of the forage will become an issue. Chop length is also important. I recommend a cow’s muzzle length for forages to be fed to dairy cows.”

Bryan emphasized the benefits to be accrued from using a proven inoculant on grass silage crops, one that will deliver an almost immediate drop in pH while also maximising the ME and protein values of the forage at feed-out.

“Sil-All 4x4+ fits this bill perfectly,” he said. “It contains a mix of four bacteria to drive fermentation at each area of pH fall, and four enzymes targeted at increasing forage digestibility at feed-out. The inclusion of a bacterium which specifically favours the production of propionic acid ensures the stability of the forage once exposed to air to reduce spoilage.”

For further information contact your local United Feeds representative or call 028 9075 9000.