Getting smarter with hay and silage production

With silage season commencing and hay not far away, farmers are doing their sums to work out how much fodder they need to get through the impending feed gap.

Whether growing or buying fodder, it’s a big investment that needs to be made efficiently if farms are to remain profitable and resilient amid increasing climate-induced risk.

To help farmers better prepare for the challenge ahead, Western Beef Association invited farm and fodder consultant Dario Nandapi to talk at its recent spring field day at Vasse.

The key messages from Dario were to aim for a high-quality product, measure quality by having samples analysed by feed testing laboratories, and reduce storage and feed-out wastage.

“Quality is best measured with feed tests, which tell you a lot about its quality such as its energy content,” Dario said.

“If you’re making silage, you want metabolizable energy (ME) above 10 megajoules, while hay should be above nine megajoules. This is especially important for dairy cows, but even for certain classes of beef animals such as late pregnancy, lactating cows and young growing animals.”

Producing a high-quality product starts with a high-quality forage, and this depends a lot on when the forage is cut.

“The time of cutting is the most important factor influencing the amount of energy in hay and silage. ME will be higher the earlier you cut. As the crop matures and sets seed, they produce lignin to hold seed-heads up, which increases fibre content and drops quality and digestibility.”

At flowering and seeding, pasture can be 45-60 percent fibre, which goes up to 80 percent for dry standing feed. Too much fibre leads to less intake because it slows digestion and livestock can’t eat as much, resulting in more wastage and less liveweight gain.

However, some farmers are concerned that cutting early will result in less yield. While that can happen with crops, Dario said that the concern is usually unfounded when it comes to pastures.

“With pastures, you usually don’t lose yield because the pasture regrows. And the regrowth is usually pretty good quality. Some of the best silage I’ve tested is when it’s been cut a second time.”

For maximum bulk without losing quality, Dario recommended cutting when 10 percent of the pasture has “ear emergence”, a sign that the crop is about to enter the reproductive phase.

Once the pasture has been cut, the next requirement is to conserve it as quickly as possible before it’s broken down and loses quality.

“If the crop’s been sitting on the ground too long and wilts slowly, true protein will be broken down by micro-organisms into non-protein nitrogen, making ammonium which is less desirable. On the other hand, if you’ve done a quick fermentation, feed tests will show that ammonium is less than 10% of total protein.”

However, the obstacle to fast fodder conservation is that hay and silage must meet a minimum dry matter content before being baled in order to maintain quality and reduce the risk of hay-fires (at least 30% dry matter for pit silage, 50% for baled silage and 85% for hay). Dario had some good tips to fast-track the wilting process.

“If we cut at about 7 cm, the forage will be held off the ground by the stubble so air can get beneath to dry it. That height will also reduce soil contamination and the incorporation of bugs that break it down.

“You will also leave enough stem behind for the pasture to regrow. The stem holds the sugar reserves for regrowth so if we cut too low, we lose the sugar and the rate of regrowth declines.”

Dario also recommended that farmers start cutting mid-morning after the dew has lifted because there’s up to two tonnes of water per hectare in dew.

The next step is to spread the cut thinly so it can dry more easily. This can be helped by using a tedder rack.

“When plants are cut they will close their pores within 30 minutes to two hours in an attempt to reduce water loss and stay alive. Once the pores have closed, drying is harder. That first two hours is when we can do most of our drying, so teddering straight away can improve drying by 30-60% and make a difference to ME content.”

The quicker that silage and hay is baled the better. Dario recommends a turnaround time between cutting and baling of 48 and 72 hours for silage and hay respectively.

For most hay producers, 72 hours seems impossible, so some are now increasing silage production which requires less dry matter content before baling.

Silage can typically achieve a higher quality product compared to hay, resulting in better intake, less waste and better animal production and calving and lambing percentages. The ensiling process can also kill weed seeds and aid weed management, while field losses are reduced compared to hay where you can lose a quarter of it through leaf shatter. Silage also stores better than hay if conserved properly. Total losses with silage are around 15 percent compared to an average of 30 percent loss with hay stored in a shed.

However, there are significant risks and costs associated with silage.

“If you are going to make silage it’s got to be high quality because there’s no point in wrapping hay.

“Air is the enemy of silage. Any holes in the wrap will let air in and cause mould. So it’s important to get good compaction of the forage to push air out. Then you need to wrap bales with four layers at 50 percent overlap and 50 percent stretch.”

Holes can also be minimised by baling and wrapping at the storage site and storing on the butt-end, which has a lot more plastic. This minimises damage when birds land on them and grub damage from below.

Dario also warned against storing on slashed areas where stubble that can pierce the wrap, and to use white or green plastic because black plastic gets hotter and softer, becoming prone to piercing by birds that land on it.

“If you get holes in the wrap, fix them with proper silage tape, not duct tape. Get dust and moisture off before using tape to make sure it sticks properly.”

Regardless of whether you make hay or silage, or just buy in hay, limiting storage and feed-out losses is also an important consideration.

“Storing hay outside leads to bigger losses compared to shed storage, which may justify investment in sheds. If it’s on the ground even in a shed, a wicking effect can destroy 50% of the bale so put it on a pellet.”

As mentioned earlier, feed-out losses can be reduced by providing a high-quality product that stock waste less of. However, good infrastructure can also reduce wastage.

“Generally speaking, the more you spend on a feedout system, the less wastage you have. The average wastage from using a bare area or ring feeder is 18 percent. This compares to troughs that can cut losses to 1-3 percent. So, while infrastructure can be a short-term cost, it can also be a long-term saving.

“A good system needs something to stop stock throwing fodder around or defecating on it. To do this, some guys put a bar or hotwire above troughs or other feedout systems such as conveyor belts or bare ground.”

Dario’s presentation helped farmers understand the importance of quality in terms of cost savings and meeting targets such as calving percentages, and that quality doesn’t mean yield is sacrificed. It’s no wonder several farmers walked away with feed testing kits that organisers made available.

More information can be found in the Top Fodder manual, which is free to download online. The Feed Central website has information to help understand feed test results.

This Western Beef Association Inc. event was supported by South West Catchments Council, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

Copyright © 2023 South West Catchments Council

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