3rd May 2022

By Steven Eddie, ECV Nutritionist

With the cost of key inputs such as feed, fertiliser and fuel steadily increasing, it is now more important than ever to consider how you manage silage production on your farm. Silage is not cheap to produce so it is important to ensure that what is made is of high quality. By managing grass correctly, the silage produced will have good energy and protein levels, be highly digestible and leave little or no waste. This in turn will improve livestock performance and profitability.

The first step to improving silage quality is to decide how much and what type of silage is needed. Stock such as sheep or growing and finishing cattle require high quality silage with good levels of energy and protein paired with high digestibility. Suckler cows do not need silage with such high energy levels especially if being fed ad-lib in bunkers, this will ensure they do not become too fat. This is easier when producing baled silage. Fields can be cut when they are at the optimum grass quality or can be left to bulk out further for a greater yield. Farms operating a pit do not have this luxury and often need to take a number of fields at the same time to get the pit filled. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. Using a “one big first cut” approach to make silage increases the risk of fodder shortages because second cut yields and annual grass production are both reduced by pushing  first cuts  later into the summer. With  earlier cutting there is a great opportunity to make a cost-effective second cut of silage.

Once the decision has been made as to the type of silage to be produced, there is now a target to meet. For higher quality silages, cutting grass at the correct growth stage is the most important factor. Once the grass produces a seed head, the digestibility of the silage produced from this grass will be 70% at most.

This then decreases by 0.5% each day until the grass is cut. In mature, bulky crops there will be a further reduction of 3-4% digestible dry matter due to the dead material at the base of the sward. 

Having decided at what stage to cut the grass, there are a few further steps to consider on the day of cutting. Avoid cutting grass early in the morning. Where possible, leave cutting until the afternoon/evening when sugar levels in the crop are at their peak. High sugar content allows the crop to ferment quickly in the pit/bale, reducing pH and preserving the crop  correctly. If sugars are over 3% then the crop will ensile readily, at 2-3% wilting will be beneficial, while below 2% an additive may be       required.

Machinery settings are also important when trying to achieve high quality silage. It may be tempting to set mowers low to the ground to increase the amount of crop cut but this can lead to soil contamination. This in turn leads to moulds forming which can cause waste and lead to health issues in livestock. Ensure fields, intended for silage production, are heavy rolled to consolidate the ground, remove stones, mole hills and any areas poached by grazing stock. Ideally the mower should be set at a height of around 6-7 cm and increased to 10 cm in newly reseeded leys.

Once cut, it is important to let the grass wilt to remove excess water. This will reduce the amount of crop to cart to the pit or reduce the number of bales to wrap. When wilting grass, aim for a dry matter of 30%. This is very beneficial to good preservation,  especially if sugar levels in the crop are low. To speed up the wilting process, the cut crop should be spread out, tedding out for 24 hours is the recommended approach. Grass will not dry enough if left in the bout, even if left for 36 hours. A rapid wilt prevents excessive sugar and protein losses so ideally grass should not be left for longer than 24 hours. Getting the correct dry matter is crucial to ensuring a good fermentation. When grass is ensiled too wet, the silage produced will be very acidic as a large amount of acid needs to be produced to stabilise it. Equally, grass that is too dry also has its problems. It is difficult to consolidate in a pit or bale and often secondary fermentation can occur at feed out.

Filling of the pit is where the biggest problems lie in terms of making quality silage. If correct clamp management is maintained then the chance of losses will be reduced. Before filling, ensure the pit is clean and the floor and walls are in good condition. If walls require sheeting, ensure there is adequate overhang as this will reduce as the pit fills. Ensure grass is spread in even layers of no more than six to nine inches and rolled consistently. When silage layers are too thick, pockets of air will form. This slows fermentation and increases yeast and mould growth. This is more likely to cause the silage to heat when the clamp is opened.

Once the pit is full, the aim should be to cover the pit as soon as possible. Make an envelope with the side sheet so that any water running off the top of the clamp runs down the side and not into the silage. Double sheeting with silage sheets is recommended to ensure all air is expelled and a good seal produced. Cling film type silage sheets are becoming widely used. These thin plastic sheets cling down on the top of the silage, reducing air pockets and reducing spoilage; a black silage sheet will still be needed on top.

Baled silage must be managed similarly. Ensure bales are wrapped soon after baling and do not bale more than can be wrapped that day. Baler wrapper combinations cut out this step as bales are wrapped straight after baling allowing the fermentation process to begin immediately.

Some farms can lose up to 20% of dry matter post-ensiling through poor management. This can be a combination of effluent losses, failure to fully seal pits, and damage to bales. Monitor pit and bales continually and check for damage caused by weather conditions and vermin. Using a block cutter when feeding out will also reduce waste.

A further step that can be taken to improve silage quality and reduce waste is the use of a silage additive. East Coast Viners Animal Nutrition are  stockists of the Ecosyl Range of silage additives from Volac.

Using a proven additive like Ecosyl 100 on pit silage gives a much better control silage fermentation.   Ecosyl 100 has been shown to cut dry matter losses by half, improve silage digestibility and give better preservation of protein. More importantly, feeding grass silage made with Ecosyl has been shown to boost milk yield in dairy cows and improve daily liveweight gain in beef cattle.

For higher dry matter baled silage, Double Action Ecobale combines the same proven bacteria in Ecosyl 100 with a second beneficial bacterial strain plus a feed-approved preservative. It is a single treatment designed to keep bales fresher for longer by improving fermentation and targeting mould growth, heating and waste.

ECV also stock a high-quality range of bale wrap and net available for collection or delivery. Triowrap, Topwrap is manufactured to the highest specification using quality raw materials to ensure uniform thickness; giving a good seal and excellent weather protection. Topwrap is available in green or black.

RKW Topnet is a versatile, premium quality net suitable for all makes of round balers.  It provides edge to edge coverage to help achieve compact, well-shaped bales every time.

Also available to order Oxyseal and Secure Covers. Oxyseal Covers are a single 90 micron sheet with a built-in oxygen barrier that prevents oxygen from entering the clamp. This will eliminate surface waste, prevent mould and bacteria growth and improve silage quality.

With the cost of making silage increasing, any steps that can be taken to improve quality should be taken. Contact the sales team at ECV for more information on silage products.

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