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Getting Value from Winter Feeding

10 December 2019
Type Media Article

By Mícheál Kelly, Teagasc Adviser, Galway/Clare Regional Unit

For the most part, cattle have now been housed for a number of weeks with the exception of a few and after a relatively good season at grass it is important to now follow on that performance with cattle indoors. We are now well into December and the numbers of cattle being brought out for sale this side of Christmas will be dropping from here on in. So what do we do if we have bought in cattle or are keeping our weanlings over until the spring?

First things first, the majority of diets will be made up with silage as the main feed source. This has been sitting as bales or pit silage in the yard since summer and is a huge expense on the farm but sometimes we have a habit of not putting a true value on this silage.  Yes we can put a value on it if we are buying or selling silage but it is surprising how many farmers still do not know the nutritional value of their silage even though it is the main component of their animal’s winter diet. Whether we like it or not the performance of the cattle on this diet dictates whether or not we get value for holding cattle over the winter.

It costs just €36 to test a silage sample, which in relative terms is just over the cost of a bale of silage or 5 bags of nuts. The value of this small spend is huge however. It may allow you to reduce the cost of your daily feeding if the results are good and where results are poor, at least you can plan to ensure your cattle are actually thriving while indoors which, being realistic is at least another 100+ days.  Testing your silage is just like getting directions for a car journey, you need to know exactly where you are at the minute before getting directions or planning your route forward.

The rumen is the engine room of the animal and our main focus is on balancing it for protein and energy. There is a see-saw effect between them. If protein is high but energy is low, the protein is only used until the energy runs out and any protein fed after that point passes through the animal at your cost but will not add any value along the way. The same can be said for energy if the protein runs out first. Having excess energy in the diet is sometimes a good thing for finishing cattle but on the whole we want to try and balance the rumen as much as possible in our weanlings. Energy sources in rations e.g. Barley, Wheat etc. are relatively cheap but high protein ingredients such as soya bean meal are expensive so we do not want to be feeding them at high levels unless absolutely necessary.    

Leafy digestible silage should have a high protein content (14%+) and is similar in feeding value to feeding concentrates. If the protein content of the silage is high then feeding a high protein nut is a costly exercise. However, if silage quality is poor and the protein level is low (<10%) then by not feeding an additional source of protein you will not achieve the growth rates required over the winter months.

 To put this in context, feeding 2kg of a ration at €270/ton to a pen of ten weanlings for 120 days will cost €648. If the silage quality is high, this expense is not always justified but if silage quality is poor and the ration is not fed, you could be reducing the growth rates from 0.7kg/day to 0.2kg/day which, on 10 weanlings over 120 days, at a weanling price of €2.20/kg is €672 of a missed opportunity (€1320 liveweight value minus the cost of meal fed). Many weanlings were bought for €672 this back end so in layman’s terms the benefit in weight gain on 10 weanlings is the equivalent of having an extra weanling to sell next spring.

The minimum target of a weanling diet is to achieve 0.5kg liveweight per day over the housing period. If weanlings are gaining any less than this it will lead to a stunting effect on the animals mainly due to their minimum requirements for protein, which is essential for growth and development, as well as the weight targets to improve their marketability not being achieved.

To sum up, know your feed, know your target market and know where the value is when planning feeding costs this winter.