Silage is a growing trend for beef cattle operations

Weather woes and labour shortages are all adding up to a new case for parking the baler

As beef cattle herds get larger, the case grows stronger for silage instead of bales.

Dwayne Summach, livestock and feed extension specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture told a session at last week’s Ag in Motion outdoor farm show here that larger operations can better absorb the higher overhead costs, and benefit the most from parking the baler.

“Silage takes weather out of the equation,” Summach said, noting that good hay could be hard to make many years. In 2017, more than 90 per cent of hay in Saskatchewan was put up in good condition, but a year earlier in 2016 that figure was just five per cent.

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He estimates that in that year, between 82 and 95 per cent of silage — depending on the region — was put up in good condition. It also generally has better feed energy, especially for lactating cows, Summach told show attendees. It’s difficult to harvest hay at the 60 to 65 per cent TDN that you can get with cereal silage, or up to 75 per cent with corn.

“We need to get our heads around the fact we should be making dairy-quality hay,” Summach said. “You can reach these targets easier with silage.”

Easier management

Summach said beef producers regularly tell him that after the weather, finding adequate labour to harvest hay is one of their biggest challenges.

He noted that hiring a custom operator to chop and haul silage is a turnkey solution to this challenge, and insisted the only real economic difference to a cattle producer is that it’s a lump sum payment plan.

“It’s an easy way to solve your labour issue, and all you have to do is write a big cheque at the end of the week,” Summach said. “There are also expenses to baling and, per tonne of dry matter, it’s very close to the same number at the end of the year.”

Silage is also simpler after harvest, he said. It’s piled where the producer wants it, and there isn’t a lot of twine or netting to wrestle with, though he acknowledged plastic covering for silage piles is a necessary evil.

“Your silage is a big investment, and there is well-documented research that the return on investment covering silage is around seven or eight to one return on investment,” Summach said.

He also noted silage opens the door to blending with lower-quality feeds to provide cows with what they need to get through the winter and even gain weight, while keeping costs as low as possible.

Narrow harvest window

He did concede there were a few drawbacks, noting that the harvest window can be very narrow, especially for cereals, and that seeding dates and crop selection would be important. Most barley varieties, for example, mature within one or two days of each other. Staggering planting dates would only partially address that issue, Summach noted.

“Seeding two weeks earlier, you will probably see about a week’s difference in harvest date,” he said. “Barley likes to hurry and catch up.”

Custom silage harvest will run between $10 and $12 a tonne, and feeding requires some equipment changes, including a mixer wagon and a second tractor.

“There’s also going to be a steep learning curve,” Sum­mach said. “Don’t commit your entire herd. In the first year do something like trying to feed just your retained heifers on silage.”

By the numbers

Summach compared the relative advantage of corn versus cereal silage for a 1,300-pound heifer, seven months pregnant.

Corn has moderate protein feed and cereals relatively high protein, which made the biggest difference.

photo: Saskatchewan Agriculture

A corn silage ration would include 35 pounds of corn silage, eight pounds of alfalfa and 12 pounds of barley straw. That ration would see the animal gain 0.7 pound a day, and would cost $1.35 a day per cow.

A cereal silage ration would incorporate 40 pounds of cereal silage, four pounds of alfalfa, and the same 12 pounds of barley straw. That ration would see the animal gaining 0.4 pound a day, costing $1.10 a cow per day.

photo: Saskatchewan Agriculture

“She’s not gaining as much weight, but she’s still getting what she needs,” Summach said.

He again emphasized the yardage costs would be higher for silage, mostly based on equipment costs, noting that even an old tractor that was adequately sized would run $30,000.

“And that’s probably for something from the late ’80s, maybe the early ’90s,” he said.


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Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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