How to calculate now how much silage you will need next winter

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This spring has tested the mental resolve of farmers up and down the country. It has been a huge battle to ensure that our cattle have had enough feed in front of them and for many, the battle continues.

It may be hard to focus on securing tomorrow’s dinner when there’s only barely enough for today’s, but that is now where the focus has to shift to.

At the recent grassland Farmer of the Year walk, at Eddie O’Donnell’s farm in Tipperary, a graph presented to the attendees that day showed that 10pc of the grass we grow on our farms annually is grown in the spring, the other 90pc is grown in the summer and autumn.

So to put it into GAA terms, we’re five minutes into the game and we’ve conceded a few early scores, but we’ve 65 minutes left to try claw back the lead.

The first step in securing enough feed for next winter is to figure out how much feed do we need? At recent discussion group meetings, this tends to range from five months for those on free draining soils to seven months on heavier soils. Work out what you think is your core winter housing period and then add one month’s buffer to help safeguard against future weather related events.

How to calculate how much silage will be eaten

The next step is to calculate the number of mouths that will be eating the silage over the winter. The table is a very simplified winter feed budget that most farmers should be able to attempt completing.

Now that we know how much winter feed we need, the next challenge is getting it.

Fertiliser is yet to go out for silage on many farms. This needs to be spread as soon as conditions permit. Reduce Nitrogen by 10-20pc but ensure the crop gets adequate phosphorus and potassium. Four bags of 18-6-12 per acre should deliver an adequate crop now.

Many farmers are going to drive for bulk this year for first cut and delay cutting until well into June. Previous trials have shown that this may not be wise as yields in subsequent cuts could suffer as a result, as well as quality.

When to cut first cut silage

The target should be to aim for the first cut for as near to June 1 as possible and then aim for the second cut in the last week in July. This should then allow the option of a third cut or a decent crop of after grass in the autumn. This system should deliver more quantity and quality of silage than the one big cut in mid/late June.

If, when we complete our winter feed budget, we realise there is still a deficit, then we may have to look at other feed options for the coming winter. There are plenty of alternatives to silage and most are competitively priced.

The table lists some of these options and also compares them based on price per unit of feed value (UFL). Rather than getting too stuck on the figures, the key point from this table is that there is very little difference between most of the options on a cost basis, so which one you choose should also be decided on availability, ease of storing the feed, ease of handling the feed and ease of feeding out the feed.

Many of these alternative feeds require adequate feed space at the barrier, something that is deficient in most yards. For many, securing rented ground for silage may be the easiest solution, but availability appears to be an issue this year. For others, rolled barley or a cheap “fodder stretcher” type ration might make more sense and quality is more guaranteed.

Another factor that has to be considered when deciding on the most suitable feed will be cash flow. Feeds such as maize most likely will require a deposit at sowing stage, whereas feeding meal during the winter may not require payment until next spring, depending on your merchant’s credit terms.

However, the one risk with the meal feeding strategy could be optimism!

Picture the scenario: it’s November 15, 2018 and cows have just been housed. I have four months’ silage in the yard. Shur that’ll get me to Paddy’s Day, I’ll take my chances and worry about March in March. Sound familiar? If meal is to form part of your winter feed strategy, then it has to be fed from day one of the winter.

Up to 90pc of the year’s grass is yet to grow. There will be lots of silage made this year, but will it be enough? Do a budget and put a plan in place. We don’t want to be dealing with fodder shortages again next year.

Joe Kelleher is a Teagasc dairy advisor based in Newcastle West, Co Limerick.

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