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Quality over Quantity - Silage 2024

Quality over Quantity - Silage 2024

Nollaig O’Dowd, B&T Drystock Advisor, Teagasc Galway/Clare, discusses the importance of creating a fodder budget, ensuring high-quality silage for optimal animal performance, and timing the harvest correctly to balance quality and quantity.

Dare we say it, the spring/summer has landed after what felt like a never ending winter for many farmers across the country. At this stage, having already been delayed due to weather conditions, preparation is underway for the 2024 silage season. Fields are being closed, fertiliser is being shook and for the minority silage cutting has begun.

Fodder Budgeting

Although we would like to brush it off into the distance, now is the time to start thinking of the 2024/2025 winter housing period. First things first, a fodder budget should be completed. Many farmers discovered the importance of a fodder budget the hard way this winter- running short of silage reserves due to a longer housing period than usual. For many, the only solution was to purchase silage, supplement with meal or off-load stock early- all at a significant cost.

The question is ‘how long of a winter should we budget for’? Acting on the winter gone by we would want to anticipate a 7 month housing period at least. As the saying goes, ‘it’s better to be looking at it than looking for it’.

Once we know the time-frame we are going to budget for, stock numbers are next! We must put an approximate number on the amount of stock to be carried over the winter. Silage demand is influenced by type and age of the animal.

Below is a table indicating the approximate amount of silage needed by each animal type.

Total tonnes neededD
Total bales needed (tonnes multiplied by 1.25)E
Animal TypeNo. of Stock to be kept over winterNumber of months*(Include a 4-6 week reserve)Pit Silage Neededtonnes / animal / monthTotal tonnes of Silage Needed Multiply (AxBxC)
Dairy cows     1.6  
Suckler cows     1.4  
0-1 year old     0.7  
1-2 year old     1.3  
2+ year old     1.3  
Ewes     0.15  

Silage Quality

The focus should be put on making high quality silage, especially for those carrying growing or finishing stock over the winter. Ewes will also require high quality silage pre-lambing.

The term Dry Matter Digestibility (DMD) is always mentioned when we talk about silage quality. High DMD silage (>70%) results in increased animal performance due to higher feeding values and increased intakes.

Harvest date has a huge influence on DMD. Once your crop heads, DMD will be no higher than 70% and will continue to drop 1% every 2-3 days until cut. Crops that lodge or have a base of dead yellow material will also be lower in DMD.

Below is a table taken from a study carried out at Teagasc Grange, assessing the effect of silage cutting date on animal performance. Although the yield of silage was lower with the earlier cutting date, the animal’s average daily gain from the earlier leafy sward was significantly higher.

At farm level, what this would mean is: Feeding the higher quality silage over a 150 day housing period would result in an extra live weight of 40-50kg OR a reduction in meal fed by 2kg/day for similar daily weight gain.

 First-cut silage quality
DMD g/kg DM750700650600
Harvest date 20 May  2 June  15 June  28 June 
Silage yield - t DM/ha 4.8 6.0  7.0  7.7 
Daily live weight gain - kg 0.83 0.66  0.49  0.31 
Feed efficiency - DMI/kg carcass gain 17.6 21.1  28.1  46.7 

With later fertiliser application rates and lower than usual growth rates in April and May, many may be tempted to delay cutting to bulk up silage crops. However, the message is not to sacrifice quality for quantity!

A key concern around silage cutting date is the nitrogen content of the grass. Grass uses approximately 2 units of nitrogen per day- meaning any farmer applying 100 units of nitrogen for 1st cut silage should leave 50 days before cutting. Depending on conditions, nitrogen can be used up quicker. If in doubt, Teagasc offers a service which tests grass for sugar and nitrogen content. Crops with a sugar content above 3% will ferment and preserve quickly. Crops with a sugar content below this will need to be wilted for at least 24 hours. Although not always possible, optimum mowing time is late afternoon/evening when sugars are at their highest.

With rising costs associated with making silage, it is more important than ever to ensure optimum quality.