Have you ever wondered what the term silage actually means? In short, silage is used as a way of feeding cattle and sheep at times when pastures are less than optimal, and is a particularly important source of back-up food during dry seasons.
The dictionary definition of silage is “grass or other green fodder compacted and stored in airtight conditions and used as animal feed in the winter”. From a practical point of view, silage should factor in your whole farm plan, to meet production goals and increase management flexibility.
What is silage?
Silage is pasture grass that has been put through a process to “pickle” it. Grasses are cut and fermented, preserving as many of the nutrients as possible (sugars and proteins). The fermentation process is carried out by microscopic organisms and bacteria that live within the grass. In order to preserve the nutrients the process takes place in acidic conditions (between 4-5 pH): any higher and the result is silage with poor quality flavour and lower amounts of sugar and protein.
What makes good silage?
Good silage is light brown in colour, with minimal odour and a sharp taste. When prepared and stored correctly it can be kept for years, as long as oxygen is restricted from entering the silage. The best fermentation takes place in conditions where crops have a high carbohydrate and low moisture content. Yields can vary between 6-18 tonnes per hectare of silage fed, depending on a variety of factors.
How is silage made?
Quality silage maximises animal production potential; you’ll not only save money on production but you’ll also reduce storage costs. There are four steps to preparing quality feed:
- Preparation and sowing
The best possible forage will dictate the quality of your feed. With that in mind, it’s important to set aside your most fertile fields and pastures, because growing crops that pass the “quality and quantity” test will ensure that you have the perfect ingredient for superb silage – fantastic fodder.
- Tending and harvesting
Timing is crucial when it comes to harvesting. Harvest too early and the yield will be down, too late and the forage quality will suffer because crop conditions decline with age. It is important to wilt the cut crop as soon as possible to target dry matter, preferably within 24 hours and definitely no later than 48 hours – the key here is delaying the harvest if there is any chance of rain.
- Storage and transport
Silage is all about timing. If you are going with chopped silage or baled silage, sealing needs to be done as soon as possible after the harvesting and wilting is complete, because once exposed to air aerobic spoilage or oxidisation starts straight away. Baled silage needs to be wrapped immediately, and chopped silage should be sealed within three days.
- Mixing and Feeding
There is an art to removing silage from storage, and there are a number of ingenious attachments that can make this process quick and simple. The trick is to remove it quickly, without taking large lumps or chunks out of the face, allowing harmful oxidation to occur or opening silage to attacks by vermin. A good device will seal the pit face, ensuring the feed quality remains very high.