Silage 2023 – one to forget, but many challenges remain

Date published: 08 November 2023

College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) Beef and Sheep Adviser Gareth Beacom reflects on the silage season of 2023, saying: “It was one to forget for many farmers.”

Discussing results and challenges of a recent silage analysis.

However, with the occasional dry spells, followed by an improved autumn, silage supplies were secured, albeit not in ideal circumstances! The question now is, what is my silage quality and how do I manage it?

Gareth Beacom states: “For a standard two cut system it was very much a tale of two halves, first cut was largely harvested in good conditions, although perhaps too dry in some cases. Then second cut was a completely different story with either low dry matter, or past the ideal stage of cutting.” Silage analysed so far within the Business Development Groups (BDGs) has highlighted this with dry matter figures fluctuating from the teens to, in some extreme cases, over 50%.

If clamp silage is either extremely dry or extremely wet, it will lead to challenges with spoilage on the pit face and intakes may be negatively affected. “Very dry silage is extremely challenging in a clamp situation,” states Beacom. “Poor pit face management can allow too much air to enter the clamp thus allowing for mold growth and mycotoxin contamination. In this situation, taking small, shallow cuts from the clamp face will allow you to get across the face of the clamp quicker hence limiting the exposure time of the clamp face to air. Keeping the clamp face as straight and clean as possible will also be beneficial.”

The same challenges can be seen in wet silages with low sugars leading to poor fermentation. If you’re concerned about the fermentation of your silage, getting it analysed will provide information on how well the silage has fermented by giving a pH reading.  Silages with a high pH, for example of 4.6 or above indicates a poor fermentation. These silages are high in butyric acid which leads to a sharp, unpleasant smell. They will also turn a dark colour when fed out and go off very quickly. Getting good intakes can be a problem with these silages, the addition of molasses may help intakes and help increase the energy content. In extreme cases a mycotoxin binder may also be needed to prevent herd health problems.

Silage with a low pH, for example of 3.6 or below, may have had a secondary fermentation which can lead to a reduction in protein content. These are high in lactic acid and may need to be fed with a buffer/yeast product to ensure correct rumen pH is maintained – particularly in finishing cattle.

Beacom concludes: “Whilst dry matter can be assessed visually other parameters cannot, therefore, it is critical to get your silage analysed as the delay in cutting, coupled with possible poor fermentation may lead to silage having a lower nutritional value than anticipated. A silage analysis can let you know important factors such as the protein and energy content of your silage as well as the digestibility, pH and dry matter.”

Whilst there is little that can be done about the silage quality now, proper management of how the silage is fed out can minimise the challenge.  Assessing the different silages on farm will allow you to determine which silage is most suitable to which class of stock. Even the smallest of farms will have several different classes of stock throughout the winter months, i.e. lactating cows, dry cows, replacement heifers and growing calves.

Getting your silage tested is the first step in the decision-making process and can be organised through your Business Development Group via your local CAFRE Adviser. 

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