Silage can be your biggest profit centre, but you need to plan ahead

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Silage is often looked at as a rescue operation.

There’s a lot of reasons why that’s the case, says Ray Bittner, a Manitoba Agriculture farm production adviser who also runs a cattle operatio and has done silage for years.

It is often the only alternative in wet years when it won’t stop raining, when a first crop of alfalfa is so full of weeds it would never dry down, or it’s greenfeed harvested in late fall. Other obvious reasons are manured fields prone to rot, heavily lodged crops lying in a wet mess, or when corn is the feed of choice.

“In those cases, silage can save the day. But silage can make your farm more profitable if you do it by design,” Bittner said in a presentation at the recent Hay and Silage Day field tour hosted by the Manitoba Forage Council.

Forage production — not stockmanship or animal husbandry skills — is the true profit centre of most ranches, and whether it is better to grow your own forages or simply buy from someone else depends on a ranch’s particular circumstances, he said.

But since making silage is extra work and costs money, it has to provide an “edge” in delivering more yield per acre via better water and fertilizer use efficiency as well as superior feed quality and reduced waste, he said.

Citing research on alfalfa done in water-scarce California, Bittner said making an early first cut of the thirsty crop often pays dividends, because it leaves more water and allows for faster regrowth for the second cut.

“It’s hard to make dry hay in June, but it’s a whole lot easier to make silage,” he said.

Waiting longer to make a first cut may boost total volume, but most of alfalfa’s later growth is in the form of stems, not the protein-rich leaves, and the older it gets, the poorer the digestibility.

Silage can also save the day when manure is overapplied and the lush result is too rich to dry down quickly. Studies show the optimum application level is 15 tons per acre, but since many farmers just eyeball the dose, it’s easy to overdo it.

“A lot of people don’t realize it, but 15 tons is one big industrial spreader covering 16 feet wide, half a mile long,” Bittner said. “Nobody drives that far.”

Making silage at 62 to 64 total digestible nutrients (TDN) can pay off in cheaper wintering costs for beef cattle by compensating for poorer, cheaper feed such as slough hay or straw.

For example, 40 pounds of 57 TDN hay for an old beef cow costs $1.40. On the other hand, high-quality alfalfa silage with cheap “whatever” hay or straw can work just as well.

“You can get your ration cost down to $1.16 just by having that quality with the same animal performance,” he said.

For 650-pound calves gaining 2.25 pounds/day, 14 pounds of hay and eight pounds of barley cost $1.32. But 11 pounds of good alfalfa and 22 pounds of corn silage at 65 per cent moisture plus five pounds of barley cost only $1.12.

“Doing a more expensive process can reduce your costs,” said Bittner.

Getting a forage crop to ensile properly depends on sugar content, also known as water-soluble carbohydrates. In early corn at 31 per cent sugar, the milky goo can be seen coming out of every hole of the blower.

“That’s water-soluble carbohydrates to the max. That’s the type of stuff that makes ensiling a cakewalk,” he said.

However, late, fully mature corn drops to around eight per cent, and can be tough to ensile.

Barley at the milk stage contains 32 per cent water-soluble carbohydrates, but if it’s left to mature too long, and there’s only grain and straw, problems may arise.

That’s where the reliability of custom harvesters come in, he added.

“If they are late by two or three weeks or some ridiculous time, it’s a mess that costs you more than their bill,” said Bittner.

There are many alternatives for protecting a hay harvest, from full-on storage sheds with walls and doors to tarps and dangling weights.

Leaving round bales outside in rows side by side or “mushroom style” results in spoilage losses of six to 10 per cent, a 1988 study by the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute found.

However, hay kept in a shed saw exactly zero losses, said Tim Clarke, a farm production adviser based in Ashern, Man.

A top-notch, 80×200-foot storage shed 20 feet high with no foundation and a gravel floor would cost $228,000. If it holds 1,077 tons of medium squares and lasts 30 years, the cost of storage is about $212 per ton in capital costs or $7 per ton per year. If it lasts 25 years, the annual cost per ton is $8.20.

At four cents per pound, you’re probably better off storing hay outside and learning to live with the seven per cent lost to weather, he said.

But if the hay is worth over six cents per pound, the shed pays for itself — if it’s always full and lasts 30 years.

At $200-per-ton hay, weathering losses amount to $14 per ton. At that price, having a hay shed makes sense.

“So, the higher the value of the hay, the easier it is to pay for the hay shed,” said Clarke.

Lower-cost alternatives such as owner-built structures made with salvaged hydro poles or treated timbers can do a good job, too, but the hay may still be subject to rain or snow infiltration and bleaching if the sides aren’t covered.

A tarp can pay for itself, he added, especially if it can be made to last a few years.

A 25×48-foot hay tarp that costs $150 plus $25 of rope and weights covering 42 tons of hay with a three-foot overhang costs $4.17 per ton. If it lasts three years, the cost is just $1.38/ton per year.

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