Plan Now For An Early Start For First Cut

The ground is still delicate after all the rain, but planning must start now to get first-cut off to an early start, writes Brian Reidy.

As I write, I am looking out at my cows and calves grazing for the first time since October 18 last year. It has been a long winter, and it isn’t over just yet, going by the forecast. I have been surprised as to how well the ground here has held up since I turned them out. Time will tell if I can leave them out, fingers crossed.

As we head rapidly towards Easter and the beginning of April, forage production planning for next winter must be on all livestock producers’ minds. Stocks are low on most farms at this point and reducing rapidly. It’s almost like the cattle know you are short of feed and up their appetite, so as to stress you just that little bit more! 

The ground is still delicate after all the rain, but planning must start now to get first-cut off to an early start, writes ruminant nutritionist Brian Reidy

Obviously, the ground is still delicate after all the rain, and a significant number of farms will have applied no slurry to silage ground, never mind having any Nitrogen out. Growth has not kicked on yet due to the poor weather and lack of nutrient application. 

However, we must get the grass-fed as soon as possible if we hope to make the required quantity and quality of silage. We will need to fill yards again and hopefully replenish reserves of forage that have been eaten into recently.

Making Good Quality Silage

Smart decisions regarding forage production for next winter need to be made. Cutting better-quality silage earlier will always result in improved animal performance with less dependence on purchased concentrates, which is so important each winter. This will help to reduce your overall production costs while animals are housed, while not compromising on their performance. 

“One way of improving the quality of your silage is to cut it earlier than you traditionally would. I fully understand that this may not be so easy to achieve this spring if fertiliser doesn’t go out soon, but nonetheless, if you don’t plan for it, then you won’t achieve it.” 

Take care not to apply too much nitrogen so that you can cut early. Younger swards will use up more nitrogen than older swards, so consider this before spreading.

Contractors charge by the acre for harvesting, but producing quality rather than bulk must be your goal once you have adequate volume. Your cutting date will, of course, be down to weather, ground conditions, stocking rate, contractor availability, units of nitrogen applied, etc.

Aim for top-quality silage in every cut. I have never heard a compelling reason for actively aiming to produce poor-quality silage!

Farmers will pay more for contractor services in 2024 as operational costs ‘soar

Fertiliser For Silage Production

Do you have an up-to-date soil test for your silage ground? This year, more than ever, you must get soil indexes right to optimise the return on your nitrogen purchases. Have you put slurry out, and how much? Most haven’t, so how do you propose getting sufficient P & K onto the sward? 

“Many can’t purchase P, so this is a big stumbling block! If you have been able to apply it earlier in the year, make sure to count nutrients supplied from the slurry before calculating the chemical fertiliser requirement”. 

Silage production requires a lot of Potash, in particular. How much nitrogen you spread should be determined by the intended cutting date and the swards’ ability to grow, based on soil fertility and reseeding history. Early cuts will require less nitrogen, as high-nitrogen swards are difficult to preserve. 

Splitting fertiliser application for first-cut silage is also a good idea. It will allow you to assess growth during April and give you the option to apply more or less fertiliser when applying the second round based on uptake/growth. Sulphur is also a very important element for silage ground as it boosts the availability of Nitrogen to the plant during peak growth.

Silage Production Costs

To start with, calculate the silage stocks being carried over from last year, if you are lucky to have some left.

Grass silage production is getting more and more expensive every year. Unfortunately, its quality can be variable depending on weather, cutting date and grassland management/reseeding policy. Too much poor or average silage in the pit may, in fact, increase overall production costs.

“First-cut grass silage of 22-25% Dry Matter will typically cost €40 to €45 per tonne in the pit this year, depending on yield or €350-€400 per acre. You must factor in Land rental/land charge on own ground, reseeding, liming and weed control, then the real cost of silage will rise very fast”. 

The contractor will charge €160-170 per acre to put it in the pit, and fertiliser will be between €65 and €100 per acre depending on what the ground’s nutrient requirements are. Add the cost of applying slurry and its value and the figure soon mounts up.

Given the experience of this winter, remember to build in a 20%-25 extra forage volume to provide for a longer winter due to poor weather, poor growth etc.

Alternatives To Grass Silage Should Be Considered

Maize silage and whole crop, in particular, are crops that must be considered in dairy and beef herds as viable alternatives to grass silage. Both use much less fertiliser per tonne of dry matter and per 1000 UFL of energy utilised. They are higher in energy and supply a terrific source of starch to drive ruminant performance. More on that next week.

  • Brian Reidy is an independent ruminant nutritionist at Premier Farm Nutrition.

(Source – Irish Examiner – Farming – Brian Reidy – 25/03/2024)

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