Serious about making more milk from forage? If you still have last season’s silage analysis reports, they offer a goldmine of tips for making better silage.
Imagine having a handy list of areas where silage-making could be improved – would you use it?
Or would you continue making silage as you always have, knowing your list was sitting unused on a shelf?
There is a list: your silage analysis. The trick is knowing how to interpret it.
Volac business manager Ken Stroud says: “A grass silage analysis does not just provide the basis for ration formulation. It is also packed with clues for potential silage improvements.
“Usually, the main figures looked at on the analysis relate to nutritional quality:
metabolise energy [ME], digestibility [D value], protein and % dry matter [DM].
“These are important, but only half the story. Other figures indicate how efficient the fermentation has been, how well protein has been preserved and whether there has been soil contamination.
“This is all valuable information. Even if silage looks reasonably nutritious, if the fermentation process which has preserved it has not been efficient, it means the silage could have been even better.
“If the fermentation was particularly poor and silage has become unpalatable, no matter how good it is nutritionally, if cows will not eat it, that is a huge waste.”
Knowing the root cause of these issues provides your ‘to do’ list for making better silage, Mr Stroud says. He suggests scrutinising the following:
Use lactic acid and VFAs to assess fermentation efficiency, says Mr Stroud.
He says: “In an efficient fermentation, beneficial bacteria convert sugar in grass into lactic acid and nothing else.
This is efficient because lactic acid is very good at preserving silage, but also because the process of converting sugar only to lactic acid wastes very little energy from grass.
“In a poor fermentation, undesirable bacteria convert sugar not only into lactic acid but also into a range of other, less efficient, VFAs and other wasteful by-products, such as carbon dioxide.
“Carbon dioxide is wasted DM, while excess VFAs are unwanted because they are weaker at preserving silage and silages with high VFAs are less palatable.
“Ideally, you want a high ratio of lactic acid to VFAs. A good target is 3:1, but higher if possible, such as 5:1.”
To achieve this, Mr Stroud says a proven additive, such as Ecosyl, can be a huge help.
He says: “Ecosyl applies one million beneficial lactic acid-producing bacteria per gram of forage treated. But more than this, the bacterial strain it contains, Lactobacillus plantarum MTD/1, is highly efficient at driving the fermentation to being dominated by lactic acid, rather than these by-products.
“Where fermentations are carried out without an additive, natural lactic acid bacteria populations can be much less efficient. Even worse, if ‘bad’ bacteria from soil or slurry are present, fermentations can be extremely poor.
“The silage’s ash figure helps gauge soil contamination. To minimise slurry bacteria, if slurry must be applied between cuts, apply as soon as possible onto clean stubble and ahead of regrowth. This will maximise sunlight reaching the undesirable bacteria to help kill them off, and allow the fresh grass to grow above the slurry. Slurry bacteria can result in poor silage palatability and big DM losses.”
An ash figure above 9% indicates a problem with soil contamination, says Mr Stroud.
Minimise this by rolling fields and checking soil is not being introduced into silage by machinery, for example by rakes and tedders set too low.
ME, the amount of energy available
to the cow, is a nutritional measure and is linked to the D value, since the more digestible the silage, the more energy she can derive from it.
But it also gives an indication of how good the preservation has been, says Mr Stroud, since undesirable microbes will feed on the most digestible part of the silage first.
Mr Stroud says: “Aim for at least 11 ME and 70 D value or above for milking cows. As well as preserving more energy through better fermentation, for example Ecosyl has been shown to boost ME by 0.6MJ/kg DM, reseeding also helps.
“Younger leys tend to be higher in energy. Also, cut before heading.
“After heading, grass digestibility falls by about 0.5%/day.
As with ME, a low silage sugar content can indicate an inefficient fermentation or it can be due to low sugar in the grass.
Mr Stroud says: “Generally, the higher the sugar content the better.
Aim for above 3%. Wilting concentrates sugars, but it is important to wilt rapidly to minimise the time the crop continues respiring for and using up sugars before it is ensiled.”
CP is the total nitrogen in the plant, which consists of the nitrogen in actual (true) protein the animal can use, plus nitrogen fertiliser that the grass had absorbed but not yet converted into useable protein.
Too high a protein content is not necessarily good, because it buffers the fermentation.
Mr Stroud says: “A good figure is 16-18% protein; higher often indicates residual fertiliser still in the crop.
“Low protein may be a sign the grass was cut too late, since younger grass tends to be higher in protein, or possibly that fertiliser dose was too low. But it can also mean grass was wilted for too long, because until it is stable in the clamp, enzymes in grass will break protein down.
“Since nitrogen fertiliser is not applied to clover swards, they can analyse low for CP but still perform well.”
In conjunction with CP, look at ammonia content, says Mr Stroud.
It gives an indication of protein breakdown, although it can also be produced from excess nitrogen.
Mr Stroud says: “The lower the ammonia content, the less protein has been broken down, or the less bagged fertiliser is still present as residual nitrogen in the crop. Ammonia should be below nine.
“Wilting rapidly, ensiling promptly and achieving an efficient fermentation will all preserve protein. Also, make sure you optimise nitrogen inputs so the grass has chance to fully utilise what is applied.”
Mr Stroud says: “If silage is too wet or too dry, cows struggle to eat enough of it, which is not wanted with high-yielding cows.
“The ideal target is 28-32% DM. This helps minimise effluent risk. “Any drier and there is increased risk of losses from silage heating [aerobic spoilage].
“To make it easier to reach this DM quickly, cut at the correct growth stage, because lighter, leafier grass is easier to wilt, and assess whether increased tedding may be required.”
The more moisture the silage contains, the more acidic (lower pH) it will tend to be, which increases the acid load on the cow. Mr Stroud says: “The ideal pH will depend on the percentage of DM, since drier silages need less acidity to make them stable. For silage at 30% DM, aim for a pH of 4. Wilting to the optimum 28-32% DM helps to avoid excess acid loading.”
Intake potential is a combination of several factors, including percentage of DM, pH, fermentation quality, chop length, with shorter chop lengths increasing intake potential, and D value, since more digestible silages travel through the cow faster.
Mr Stroud says: “Aim to optimise each of these parameters because a higher intake potential is important for maximising milk from silage. The ideal intake potential is above 100%.”
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