Making silage cost palatable for producers

Silage becomes more palatable for producers if you look beyond simple cost 
per acre, Manitoba Agriculture’s Ray Bittner told the Ag Days audience Jan. 17

It’s time to add a little fermentation to your feed plan.

That’s the message Manitoba Agriculture’s Ray Bittner had for his Ag Days audience. The livestock specialist centred his talk around maximized silage value.

Silage is old hat for producers in the Interlake, but its expense, and the fact that it often requires a custom cut, makes it less popular to the south where land is less prone to moisture problems.

“It can fit in, really, any different type of situation all the way from cow-calf to backgrounding to finishing animals,” Bittner said.

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Corn silage and barley silage are already known tools in finishing operations. Corn silage, in particular, is commonly cited by public and industry specialists and Manitoba Agriculture includes guidelines for both barley and corn silage finishing, along with hay.

“I think things like alfalfa silage for a cow-calf producer are a really good fit too, and the reason I say that is alfalfa silage provides the protein and calcium, real good amounts of it, and you can fill the rest of that diet on a gestating cow with straw or some really inexpensive feed just to fill the hole,” Bittner said.

Silage cost per acre is higher than hay, Bittner acknowledged, but better nutrition and calf health, fewer abortions due to moulds, easier calving, rebreeding and faster gains all make the expense worth it in his view.

In a test of 40,000 samples from 2007 to 2015, Manitoba Agriculture found that all types of silage outstripped dry hay in terms of digestible nutrients.

Cost concerns

“One of the concerns that producers have is how much money do I have right now? How much can I spend right now? An old round baler and a Haybine (mower-conditioner) is a pretty cheap way of making forage,” he said. “Silage is always more expensive. It just is.”

Ray Bittner of Manitoba Agriculture makes the case for silage during Ag Days 2018.
photo: Alexis Stockford

The 2018 guide to estimating silage production costs, published by Manitoba Agriculture, estimates that it will cost $280.50 to produce an acre of barley silage this year, including all labour, and $424.03 to produce an acre of corn silage. For alfalfa, it will cost the producer an estimated $327.80 an acre if the stand is new, and $244.80 an acre otherwise. Bittner pointed out that silage often involves custom labour the farmer must pay out.

Barley and alfalfa silage (first year) will cost a farmer $30.64 an acre in labour, a number that increases to $45.82 for corn silage and drops to $18.14 for alfalfa in subsequent years, according to 2018 cost-of-production estimates. Machinery lease and investment numbers are higher for silage over hay across the board.

In comparison, it will cost $290.14, including $30 of labour from the farmer, to produce an acre of new alfalfa and $298.95 an acre, with the same labour, for the first year of alfalfa-grass mix. Those costs drop to $257.55 and $227.35, respectively, both with $24 of labour, in following years.

Manitoba Agriculture counts the extra labour and capital investment as one of silage’s main detractors.

“Also, silage has limited market potential, because trucking costs limit distance to market, it must be produced near the location where it will be fed,” the province’s 2018 production cost guidelines reads.

At the same time, the province says, silage does not need good haying weather for harvest. Without that limit, the feed can be harvested at optimal nutritive levels, rather than have a sudden wet spell orphan swaths in the field as relative feed value drops.

Producer’s view

Kevin Duddridge, a cow-calf producer near Pansy, Man., says he has turned to silage for the past four winters and he has been “thrilled” with the result.

“With feeding bales, you get a tremendous amount of waste,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult to make good-quality dry hay, especially if you’re spreading manure or fertilizing your fields. You get mould problems. You get moisture problems. You get heating problems and if you don’t have good-quality hay, you compromise your feeding program for the whole winter.”

From mid-October to June, Duddridge feeds his herd a mix of grass or grass-alfalfa and chopped corn silage.

The two feeds are normally cut half and half. They are tested for nutritive value each fall and the mix is adjusted through the winter for temperature, dry matter needs and reproductive cycle.

“You target what you want to feed,” Duddridge said. “What level of protein, what level of energy do you want?”

The producer cuts the crop himself, but gets it custom chopped each year.

Making it work

The expense may not be as extreme if farmers think of cost per nutrient, Bittner said.

Using current cost-of-production numbers, Bittner argued that hay is actually more expensive when expressed in pounds of TDN. Dry hay topped off at over 9.5 cents per pound, compared to alfalfa bale silage at under nine cents, alfalfa chopped silage at just over 8.5 cents and both corn and barley silage hovering between eight and 8.5 cents.

Protein in corn silage was costly. Corn chop silage was by far the most expensive of the five tested feeds at over 60 cents per pound of protein. Barley chop silage protein was also more expensive than dry hay, although both hovered between 40-50 cents. Alfalfa silage, both baled and chopped, had the least expensive protein.

Ration is part of the answer when it comes to silage’s higher cost, Bittner said, adding that quality alfalfa silage can be mixed half and half with straw.

Harvesting early will also be key to capturing the most return, he said. An early cut generally means higher silage quality, less waste, fewer mould counts, better digestible feed and opens the door for an extra cut.

Bittner added adopting silage will vary with each operation considering it, and isn’t an all-or-nothing thing.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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