Excess forage cereals: Is silage an option?
by Callen Thompson – Senior Land Services Officer – Mixed Farming
With recent rain, warm temperatures and generally low stock numbers, some producers have excess feed, particularly if they have sown grazing crops. Also, some cereal crops have already started to run up due to early sowing and warm temperatures. Although having too much feed is a great problem to have, we need to look at a way to either conserve fodder for future use or create a saleable product to help with cash flow. If you are in this situation, silage may be an option.
Before you start cutting the crop, you need to take into account growth stage of the crop what you will use it for and how you will make it. Importantly, at this time of year you also need to know if you will be able to dry the cut material quick enough to ensure feed quality. You may need to wait until daytime temperatures start to increase.
Silage can be a great fodder source used to fill gaps in feed supply. If cut at the right time, silage can retain much of the crops fodder quality, unlike hay which decreases in quality through the haymaking process. Keep in mind making something into silage will not increase the quality of the feed. For cereal crops the time that you will get optimum yield and quality is at booting to flowering for oats and booting to mid dough for wheat and barley. Cutting too early will reduce potential yield, while cutting too late will reduce quality. Agronomy of the crop will have an effect on quality. Soil fertility will also have an effect on yield and quality.
- Cut oats at booting to flowering
- Cut wheat and barley at booting to mid dough
- Ensile bales at 35-50% DM
- Ensile chop at 35-40% DM
- Ensile within 48 hours of cutting, 24 hours is desirable
Bale or Chop?
Silage can be made into baled silage or chopped silage. Baled silage is generally wrapped in plastic as soon as it is made, while chopped silages is often stored in bunkers or pits. Both options have positives and negatives. Baled silage is often more expensive in both time and money. The plastic can start to degrade, especially when out in the sun, so often bales are used for filling known or planned feed gaps or for operations like weaning rather than stored for long periods as a drought management tool.
Bales can be a better option if you only want to feed out small amounts at a time. Wrapped bales can be sold off farm more easily, but keep in mind the higher water content compared to hay in relation to transport costs. Large square bales can be stored directly in bunkers and pits rather than wrapped.
Chopped silage is often put in large bunkers or pits. In large operations like a feedlot or a dairy, the silage is often used within short periods, but for mixed farms, it is often stored for longer periods to get through feed gaps or drought. The process of ensiling in a pit or bunker involves compacting the chopped crop to remove air. If this is not done properly or water or air get into the pit, the silage can be ruined. Often this is not apparent until you go to use it.
Another consideration that needs to be made in a pit or bunker is the amount you will use in a day once opened. You do not want to have too big a face (where you are removing silage from the pile) as it will start to decay once air is introduced.
Making the silage
Once you have the plant growth stage right, it is time to mow the crop. One of the next biggest factors effecting both yield and quality is the time it takes for the crop to wilt and hit the desired level of dry matter (DM). For cereals the desired DM is 35-40% for chopped and 35-50% for baled. This should occur in 24 to 48 hours, with 24 hours being ideal. At this time of year it may be difficult to get the crop to wilt within the desired timeframe due to low temperatures.
To maximise wilting:
- Cut once the dew has lifted
- Mow crops earlier when there is less bulk
- Use a mower conditioner to break the structural tissue of the leaf and stem to increase moisture loss
- Leave a wide swath
- Use a tedder rake to increase drying
Once the crop has reached the desired DM%, it is important to harvest and store in an air tight environment as soon as possible. Chopped silage is transported to pits and bunkers, then compacted to remove air. Baled silage is baled and then carted to either a pit, bunker or storage area to be wrapped or covered with plastic. Using a baler with choppers is beneficial as it decreases the stem length and increases surface area of the plant material.
If this is your first time making silage, or you do not plan to regularly make silage, it may be a better option to use an experienced contractor rather than investing in machinery yourself.
Making silage is not an easy process, NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) have some great resources on making and using silage. These “Silage Notes” were used as reference material for this article and are located here.
Local Land Services ran a series of four, free webinars in August 2020 for any producers in NSW, presented by NSW Department of Primary Industries researcher and silage expert, John Piltz.
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