Tips on forage management this winter

Silage pit management is important in reducing wastage
Silage pit management is important in reducing wastage

Silage stocks and quality are forefront in many farmer’s minds at present. Following a difficult grazing and ensiling season, it is time to plan for the feeding challenges that may lie ahead this winter housing period.

It is important for each farm to work out how much forage is available and how much is needed to feed cattle, to ensure continuity of supply and good livestock performance. Your feed adviser can help you with the calculations, with the aid of a recent forage analysis, the dimensions of your silos or bale count, and accurate numbers of stock.

The next step is make sure that silage is used wisely. If there are surplus young-stock, selling them earlier will alleviate pressure on silage supplies. As a cow can eat up to nine tonnes of silage over the winter period, this may be the year to cull underperforming and barren cows. Examine the cow’s body condition score, particularly of those in late lactation, as fatter cows can be restricted in feed. However, it is important that cow’s body condition score is between 2.5 and 3.0 at drying off and maintained at that level until calving, as calving in low body condition can cause health complications around calving.

Minimizing silage wastage is also critical. Exposure to air causes spoilage, reduces nutrients and allows moulds to grow which can produce mycotoxins. Therefore, managing the pit-face by using a sharp shear grab, and aiming to get across the face in a maximum of three days, will minimize feed spoilage and ensure optimum palatability. Keep the losses at the barrier to a minimum by feeding at least every other day, and ensuring there is enough feeding space for all cattle to eat at once. Removing leftover silage before putting out fresh silage will help keep the silage at the barrier fresh, and where possible utilize refused feed to alternate stock. It may also be worth checking the weigh scales on mixer wagons and feeders are accurate.

If extra forage has to be purchased, remember to work out the cost per tonne of dry matter when comparing the value of feeds, as a high dry matter silage has a higher feeding value. If additional grass silage cannot be sourced, it may be substituted by increasing compound feed. Milking cows need 8kg dry matter of structural fibre daily however, feeding extra compound feed may not result in a reduction of silage intakes.

Therefore, some silage may need to be physically removed to ensure stocks are preserved. Also feeding more compound feed increases the amount of rapidly fermenting carbohydrate in the rumen and the rest of the diet must be adjusted to compensate. For example, finishing cattle can be put on higher compound feed diets along with straw (also more difficult to source this year), or other high fibre products such as palm kernel, sugar beet and soya hulls, or wet feeds such as brewers grains. This is where your feed advisor is essential in making sure that the final diet is balanced for energy, protein, fibre and minerals. Rumen buffers and live yeasts may also be added in to help maintain optimum rumen function and ensure best performance with these higher compound feed diets.

The key is to plan now to know what you have and how much you need. If there is a shortfall, act early to ensure supplies last throughout the winter.

Contact your feed advisor to help make decisions on alternative feed options.