Ending The Madness Of Silage Cutting Season

The silage cutting season is almost upon us and all involved are once again hoping for good weather and an open season, enabling the work to be done while the grass is at its optimum growth stage for ensilage.

That the importance of this window is being more widely recognised is to be welcomed, yet that in itself brings much greater pressure on farmers and contractors to get the job done in an ever shorter time frame.

A bigger harvester requires investment in larger mowers and trailers

Focused Cutting Season

In Ireland, we are at the point where there is a terrific frenzy for three or four weeks before it all deflates into occasional bouts of second and third cuts.

This situation has been becoming more acute over the years and the question has arisen as to how long it is sustainable, for it places a huge strain on the staff and machinery of both farmers and contractors.

It is also becoming a problem of finance, for the contracting industry has found itself needing ever bigger harvesters which require larger tractors to mow and prepare the swath while higher capacity trailers are required to keep up with the output, which, in turn, require more horsepower to pull them.

There are signs that the breaking point has been reached with several well established contractors getting out of the business and numerous rumours that others would like to, but are constrained by the investment they have made in machinery.

Taking Up The Slack

This silage season will tell by how much this drop-out rate is affecting the overall ability of Irish farmers to get their silage made on time.

The ripples from the sales are likely to remain localised and there is a degree of spare capacity in contracting, although it is not clear whether that extends to large pit silage operators, which are the businesses selling up.

For farmers, ensuring adequate and good quality feed for the winter is a major concern and investment.

Many might now be thinking of how best to secure both the quantity and quality of the winter’s feed if contractors are fading from the scene.

There are several ideas which may be considered in a bid to finding a route out of this bind. One is to change the silage system, a second is to bring it in-house while a third is to extend the cutting window.

Filling a big pit in one go requires a lot of grass coming ready at the same time

Opening Up The Window

None of these should be thought of as an isolated and immediate alternative to waiting for a contractor and his fleet of heavy machinery to turn up, instead, they are factors that might be mixed and matched in a move away from such a system.

One aspect common to all three is that they involve a greater management input from the farmer, which may deter those with a heavy enough workload already.

Whatever the solution chosen, all will benefit from a wider cutting window and the greatest effect on this that the farmer can influence is the heading date of the grass leys he sows.

It should be noted at this point that the heading date is not the optimum cutting time, it simply indicates the time period in which the balance of digestibility versus yield shifts towards the latter.

Although Teagasc does make mention of this factor, it is hardly stressed and seed merchants tend to provide general purpose grass seed mixtures aimed at catering to all needs rather than blends formulated to become ready within a specific period.

Keeping up with the workload can be stressful for both machine and operators

Plan The Cutting Season

The Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine (DAFM) produces a list of grass varieties recommended for use in Ireland and within the perennial ryegrasses there is a five-week gap between the earliest and latest heading types.

However, Teagasc suggests that all silage is cut by the end of May, 16 days before the latest variety, Bowie, comes to head.

Choosing to reseed fields to produce either an early cut, or a late cut, rather than a middling in-between cut, will help insure against the vagaries of the weather and contractor availability, and so take some stress out of the season.

Contractors themselves will be greatly helped by having this built-in flexibility rather than suffer endless calls from frustrated customers during the last week of May.

Having a larger window will also benefit those who choose to change their silage system from one major cut by a contractor, to a longer season centred around bales or self loading wagons.

New machinery is expensive, spreading the cost over a longer season would help pay for it

Lower Capital Requirement

Either of these routes will reduce the investment needed in machinery for the farmer if he decides to take the operation back in hand.

If, as likely, that is not viable, then there are many smaller contractors with the equipment to make silage with a baler or wagon, neither of which demands a large fleet of machines.

It is at this level of contracting where the greatest over capacity lies for it encompasses farms which spread their machinery costs through working for others, the result being, in essence, that machinery will be shared more between farmers.

Downsizing to smaller machines being used over a longer period will not put contractors out of business, it simply reduces the capital investment they need to make and pushes the season out to a month or two rather than three weeks or less.

Silaging with a baler may not suit large dairies but it offers great flexibility for smaller farms.

Small Is Beautiful

The machinery trade could also benefit from more smaller machines being sold rather than fewer large units; it helps with the cashflow as well as building in a safety margin so that if a machine breaks down, there is more likely to be a backup available while it is fixed.

Smaller tractors are being suggested as a way forward by at least one major manufacturer, although that is in the context of automation and battery power, but it is obviously not averse to the idea.

One big issue is staffing, yet here there are still benefits, because there will not be the need for a gang of extra operators over a short time frame.

Spreading the workload will enable longer periods of employment which might help retain people within the industry.

Running a forage wagon over a longer window reduces the need for a large harvester and fleet of tractors

Spreading the cutting season through sowing leys of different heading dates is by no means a novel idea, but it is one that has been forgotten, or simply ignored, in the push to have everyone make silage at the same time.

Ireland has now reached the point where such a practice is no longer practicable, certainly in seasons of poor weather. It would be sensible in so many ways to back down from the annual May madness yet, unfortunately, there are few signs of it happening.

(Source – Agriland – Justin Roberts – 06/05/2023)

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