Looking backwards, a younger version of myself used to focus exclusively on the ME (D-value) of my silage samples when assessing potential quality and feed value.
This near obsession assumed that all roads led to the Holy Grail of winter fodder that showed a figure of 11.6 or higher.
This, in turn, would mean that minimal amounts of meal would be required for store cattle and pregnant ewes.
More importantly, it would provide me with the ammunition to pepper my conversation with veiled references, alluding to the fact that I was one heck of a fella. Oh, the error of my ways.
Over the years (decades actually) I was frequently disappointed when animal performance fell short of predicted gains. Cattle wouldn’t achieve half of what I was expecting, and sheep would lose body condition when still eight weeks off lambing.
In the case of baled silage, I’m now fairly certain that dry matter plays almost as important a role as D-value. Obviously, this is not to advocate baling hard grass, which will never turn into quality fodder, but it is important to point out just how wrong things can be when wet grass is made into a bale.
Anything less, and they will be motoring backwards at an alarming rate of knots
During showery weather, wet leafy grass may show a high D-value from an analysis, but if the dry matter is in the low 20s, then it may be a bit “strong” for those fussy ewes.
If there is one vital aspect of feeding silage to sheep, it is that they must absolutely love gorging themselves on it. Anything less, and they will be motoring backwards at an alarming rate of knots (it is probably pertinent to mention that clamp silage is a different matter altogether, and a separate set of rules will apply).
Struggle to decide
This year’s analysis has highlighted this question of digestibility versus dry matter, because, while all samples are of decent quality, I struggled to decide what bales are for cattle and which ones should be fed to the sheep.
On the one hand, there are bales with an ME of 11.6 and dry matter of 23%.
Against that, another batch has an ME of 9.7 and dry matter 53%. To further confuse (or clarify?) the situation, the intake characteristics are 79 for the first sample, and 117 for the dry silage. And if complete bewilderment is required, there is a halfway house batch of bales with an ME of 11.4 and dry matter of 33%. The intake figure for this lot is 96.
The problem this year is that all classes of stock seem to really enjoy tucking into every type of fodder on offer
At this point, I tend to keep one eye on the science, and the other on how the livestock react.
Oh, and a third eye on gut instinct, which is that commonest of all farming traits.
The problem this year is that all classes of stock seem to really enjoy tucking into every type of fodder on offer, and I have no way of instantly gauging which sample is really doing the business (or not). By the time ewes lose body condition, things have deteriorated too far, so all I can do is run my hand over a few of them as often as possible.
And just when I decide that the formula for ideal baled silage is early June material (grazed in the spring) then tedded out to increase dry matter, the goalposts have moved again.
With fertiliser, diesel, plastic, and all other costs rocketing, I am thinking that the calculation for sustainable bales will have to change slightly.
I realise that most dairy farmers have no option but to continue on the same road as before, but sheep farmers are playing on a different wicket. At this stage, I wonder if the most cost-effective route for the year ahead will be to decrease fertiliser applications, let the grass grow for an extra week, and definitely aim for very high dry matter material.
My 60 young cattle are taking four days to eat three dry bales
My logic would be that higher numbers of low dry matter bales per acre will be relatively much more expensive to make, compared with grass that is close to being termed haylage.
One aspect that has been highlighted this year is the difference between wet and dry bales in terms of livestock days. My 60 young cattle are taking four days to eat three dry bales. On the other hand, they are eating four wetter bales every three days. No pun intended, but is that not food for thought?