Bumper yields of first and second cut silage across much of the country have been offset by lower than expected quality this year, with maize silages also looking likely to be high in bulk and low in energy.
As a result, dairy farmers looking to maintain 2013-14’s record production are being urged to think twice before committing to expensive late-cut grass silage, which will typically only provide yet more average quality feed.
KW nutritionist Mark Scott says: “The challenge is that few realise just how costly third and fourth cut grass silages really are.
“When first and second cuts are already lower in energy, protein and intake potential compared to 2013, the last thing most farms need is more of the same, particularly when it costs more than buying in better quality feed instead.
“Too often, the real cost of making silage is not worked out, and if it is, the focus tends to be on cost per tonne of dry matter, irrespective of the level of nutrients available to the cow.
“When you take into account the true costs, plus feed value, in-clamp losses and feed-out losses, late-cut grass silages really start to look like poor value.”
Recently updated costings for silage production show third and fourth cuts of grass silage are not only up to 2.5 times more expensive than first cut in terms of energy supply, but also matched or beaten for value by moist feeds or even dry blends (see table and graphs).
With the exception of brewers’ grains at 11.7MJ ME/kg DM, all have an energy density above 13MJ ME/kg DM, plus a protein:energy ratio that is as much as 76 per cent higher (see table 1).
Pence per hundred gram of protein
Pence per 10MJ of ME
Mr Scott says: “That extra energy density is essential when trying to achieve a winter ration averaging 12.0-12.5MJ ME/kg DM, particularly where the main grass and maize silages supply less energy than normal.
“The extra protein is an added bonus, and any moist feeds will improve palatability and help overcome the low intake potential of this year’s silages, which could otherwise hold back production through the winter.”
Mr Scott says even if silage clamps are not as full as normal, fourth cut grass silage in particular makes little sense from an economic or nutritional perspective.
Silage made from September onwards is typically inconsistent, due to higher rainfall, reduced sunlight and shorter days, resulting in considerable year-to-year variation in terms of fermentation quality and feed value.
“In contrast, bought-in moist feeds offer guaranteed consistency in terms of nutrient content, can be clamped and stored now for when they are needed, and bought on forward contract to lock in a price which fits with your budget,” he adds.
Good grass growth earlier in the year means moist feed availability is currently excellent right through to the end of winter, with options to cover the whole country. For those without a spare clamp, or even an area of clean concrete on which to create a temporary one using straw bales, most moist feeds can be supplied as individual loads (commonly referred to as ‘feeder loads’) when needed, if booked in advance.
“It is important to remember the dry feed options,” says Mr Scott. “In the costings analysis, dry blends were better value than good quality fourth cut silage for both energy and protein, while also being one of the simplest and most flexible ways to supply the specific nutrients needed to balance existing forages and other home-grown feeds in the ration.
“Think twice before you hitch up the mower or call the contractor this autumn. If the focus is on the cow’s nutrient requirements for the winter and the best value way to obtain them, making more silage generally is not the answer.