The prolonged dry spell during July has seen contrasting situations developing on farms across NI in terms of fodder supplies.

On drier farms, particularly those in the east, the lack of grass growth during July has resulted in silage being fed to animals at grass, depleting stocks of winter feed.

But regardless of location, farmers should carry out are a fodder budget now to determine if there is a silage deficit to address.

Starting steps

To complete a budget, the first step is to calculate how much silage is currently on farm, either in bale form or ensiled in a clamp.

Allow a week for a recently filled pit to settle, then calculate the volume ensiled by multiplying the length, width and average height of the clamp (in metres).

To convert this figure to tonnage, multiply by 0.64 for grass at 30% DM. For example, a clamp measuring 20m x 9m x 2m will have 230t of 30% DM silage on a fresh-weight basis.

For baled silage, assume a fresh weight of 800kg to 850kg per bale. Tally up the tonnage of baled silage and add to the volume in the clamp.

Stock demand

Next, work out how many cattle and sheep will be on farm over a typical winter.

For dry spring-calving suckler cows, daily intakes will be around 30kg to 35kg/day, or approximately 1t per head per month.

For autumn-calving cows in milk, silage intakes will be closer to 50kg/day before supplementary concentrates, or 1.5t per head per month.

For strong weanlings and medium weight stores, feeding 25kg/day of silage will mean 0.75t/head is used each month.

Finishing cattle on high levels of concentrate will consume 0.6 to 0.75t/month. Ewes will consume around 5kg/day, or 150kg per month.

Work out how much silage is needed, and factor in a safety net of 30 days to allow for a late spring.

Options to boost fodder reserves

On farms where a fodder deficit currently exists, identifying the problem in early August means there is time and more options to rectify the situation. Some of those options include:

1 Aim to harvest silage in September

With rain forecast, which should help replenish soil moisture and boost grazing swards, there is still time to close up some extra fields for silage in September.

Dress silage swards with 50 to 60 units/acre of nitrogen. If no slurry has been added, use a compound product that contains potash to drive yield.

Silage harvested in September grown in favourable conditions should yield 5 to 7t/acre on a freshweight basis.

2 Buying silage

There is silage being advertised for sale as standing crops, or in bale and pit form. While quality can be extremely variable, if targeted at certain groups of stock (such as dry cows), it can help to stretch reserves of good-quality silage. Buying early gives more options.

3 Fodder crops

On drier farms in the east, there is the option to direct-drill a fodder or catch crop into stubbles after winter cereals.

This can extend the grazing season into December, and potentially January, reducing demand for silage this winter.

4 Whole crop

There is still the potential to harvest spring cereal crops for whole crop, and it will add significant tonnage to winter fodder reserves.

To improve fermentation and cut down vermin problems, cover whole crop with grass silage.

5 Scan cows early and offload barren animals

Cows can be accurately scanned in-calf around 40 days after being served. Therefore, removing stock bulls on a fixed date in mid-August means cows can be scanned in late September.

Empty cows in good condition can be weaned early and sold live or taken to slaughter. Alternatively, house for 30 days on ad-lib concentrate and straw for a quick finish.

6 Selling stores

The mart trade is extremely strong at present. Offloading stores during August and September will reduce winter fodder demand and free up ground for silage or autumn grazing.

Alternatively, forward cattle can be held and intensively finished out of the shed in December.

The lightest stores at 480kg to 500kg will have the highest silage requirement and may be better off cashed in through the live ring before housing.

7 Bull beef

On farms with a major fodder deficit and under TB movement restrictions, consider finishing spring-born calves as young bulls.

However, there are important factors to note with this option. First, bull calves should weigh at least 300kg when housed in early October.

Delaying housing and weaning beyond this will extend the indoor feeding period into next summer, increasing lifetime concentrate consumption.

Straw can be offered as a fibre source in bull beef systems, although there is a role for high-quality silage if there is enough in reserve.

In terms of management, separate bull calves out from heifer calves now and offer creep feed. This will increase weight gain and get as many bull calves up to target housing weight as possible.

Other considerations include housing space for bulls, cashflow given that increased concentrate will be purchased, and sale date.

Moving from a traditional steer finishing system to bull beef may have tax implications, as there will be extra cattle sold in the same year.

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