Livestock farmers could be facing another winter of forage shortages unless steps are taken to manage grass effectively in light of prolonged dry weather.
Better control of dry matter losses between harvest and feed out is one area that could reduce the impact of the dry spell which is causing problems in areas of England and Wales.
Dave Davies, independent scientist for the Silage Advisory Centre, said respiration in the silo, mould or aerobic deterioration can all be minimised with good pre-season preparation, silage management and by looking at dry matter (DM) losses in different ensiling systems.
According to Dr Davies typical DM losses in a clamp can be between 25 and 40% compared to only 0.2 to 8% for bales, and 15-30% for maize silage. As much as 10% can be lost during feed-out alone.
“Some losses always occur whether it’s spilling during harvest, fermentation or effluent during storage. However, by thinking ahead farmers could significantly reduce their losses and have more silage to feed.”
When you do everything right, big bales enable grass to be cut a lot drier, while maintaining quality, explained independent grassland consultant Charlie Morgan.
“Big bales are more appropriate when grass is high DM. When dry matters are more than 30%, you won’t get the consolidation in the clamp and it may be worth considering baling instead.”
And because standing crops are generally a lot drier this season, farmers need to be on the ball when it comes to wilt times. “In some cases, grass may need to be picked up almost immediately after cutting or there will be issues with aerobic stability in the clamp.”
Mr Morgan recommends using a silage additive to stabilise fermentation and improve quality in all silage cuts this season – something which is even more worth while in light of high cereal prices.
To ensure good re-growth, producers should also avoid cutting grass too tight. This is best practice whatever the weather, but is even more important in a drought.
“Where you would normally leave a 3-4cm residual, aim for 6-8cm. There is also a lot of manure still lying at the base of some swards, so this is another good reason not too cut too close and risk mixing it in with silage,” he said.
And when grazing silage aftermaths, avoid putting stock in too early, warned Pier Badnell, DairyCo extension officer.
“Do not graze fields until grass has reached at least the two-leaf stage. When you go in too early, growth rates will be slowed and you will compound future forage shortages.”
Lack of rain will affect grass growth rates, so there is also a potential threat to second cut unless we see significant rain, said Mr Badnell. “Producers need to start thinking about alternative forage options now.”
He recommended farmers work out a plan for a drought year as well as a normal year so they are prepared to react depending on what the weather does.
Maize may also be an option for those worried about grass productivity, said Tim Richmond, maize product manager for Limagrain. “It is not too late to plant early maturing maize varieties. In dry weather, maize has a better chance of establishing than re-sowing grass leys.
“You can expect a bit of a reduction in yields when planting later, but it is still economical to plant maize up to the 28 May in the right conditions.”
Dry weather may also have reduced the effectiveness of pre-emergence weed control, so farmers may have to go in a couple of times with post emergence products.
More dry weather issues:
• Read how livestock Farmer Focus writers, Charlie Armstrong and Bryan and Liz Griffiths, are struggling with the dry weather on our Farmer Focus page
• Find out how arable producers are coping with the lack of rain on our Crop watch blog
• Are you facing problems as a result of the dry weather? Do you need advice on alternative forage crops or grass management? Swap ideas and join in the discussion on our forums.