Rayner Reckons

Dec 11

A few tips on fodder

Posted on Friday, December 11, 2015

I have to say I really do like fodder conservation.  To me being able to conserve pasture or crops and use it to top up a feed shortfall later on makes a lot of sense.  Storing fodder can also be a pretty cost effective way to undertake supplementary feeding when you compare it to purchasing other supplements and transporting them to the farm.  In my mind I like options that offer a chance to be more efficient and utilize on farm resources first, so making hay or conserving silage is always something I get a bit excited about.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 20 years talking to farmers about getting the most from their hay or from their silage.  Even though both silage and hay are commonly fed on farms throughout Australia, I’ve found that farmers don’t always consider the best ways to use these options in their programs.  So I thought it’s definitely worth spending some time to touch up a few basics on fodder, how to use it and things to keep in mind when you do use it to support your livestock.

I reckon it’s worth starting by asking you why you might choose conserve fodder? There are I guess two approaches to fodder conservation.  The first is to specifically prepare a crop or pasture to harvest and store as either silage or hay.  The other approach tends to be more of an opportunity to use excess pastures or a failed crop as a fodder source.  At least that way the resource isn’t totally wasted and you can get some use from it.

The difference in these two approaches is important.  Like anything, good quality hay or silage is the result of hard work.  If you have prepared your fodder source for harvesting – say growing a lucerne crop to make hay or silage, it will be of higher quality and have greater feed value than you might expect from pasture hay or silage.

So my first tip is if you are going to make hay or silage, the better the quality of the feed, the better the quality of fodder you will have.  It’s important to remember that the higher the quality of a fodder animal performance will also be better.  If you want to look at the economics, its actually much cheaper in the long run to make better quality fodder because the return you get in animal performance pays for its production. 

My second tip in regards to making fodder is to check the economics first.  I know I said a minute ago that conserving fodder on farm is often a cost effective strategy.  Well it is if you do it right.  That means again thinking about the quality of the fodder you are making.  If you are going to use a low quality feed source, so something that is low in digestibility, has a lot of dead leaf or stem and seed head as its main bulk then fodder you are making might not be worth much as a feed source, and so could really be a waste of time feeding it.  Or if you do use it, it might need another supplement to accompany it. 

All this means you need to plan your fodder making.  Consider what you will use and how much it will cost you to make it.  And what will you do with it when you have made it.  If you can answer these questions with a positive response then go with it. 

I think its really important not to overstate the capacity of fodder you are making.  Cutting a pasture or crop for hay or silage doesn’t automatically make it a magic feed!  If it is poor quality before you cut it, then it will be a poor quality fodder and so you have to recognize that before you get disappointed and complain about the process!

I have a few other tips to consider if you are making hay or silage.  Make sure you cut your intended feed source at the right stage of growth.  The more mature plants become, the less digestible they will be.  This means there will be lower energy values per kilogram of feed and as a result will be less valuable as a feed. 

Now I can spend a long time talking specifics about making hay or silage.  Instead what I will say is that for either form of fodder conservation you need to make sure you follow best practice by allowing the cut feed to wilt or cure before you bale it or collect it for storage as pit silage.  Its really important you work t the best practice as the longer you leave a cut feed source on the ground drying out, the more chance you have of having the feed you have grown loss its quality through decay.  You really need to get it baled, wrapped or stored properly as soon as you can.

I guess the big thing is to not expect your conservation methods to improve the feed you’ve decided to make into hay or silage.  Remember its only ever going to be as good as it was when you cut it.  And if you are a bit casual about the process of making it into hay or silage, well you’ll probably make it worse!

You should also think about what else could potentially be going into the bales you are making.  One of the big causes of livestock deaths is due to botulism.  Botulism is a disease caused by Clostridial bacteria and produces a toxin that can kill livestock very quickly.  The bacteria spores that cause the disease germinate in moist, low-oxygen environments such as rotting carcasses or decaying organic material. 

Most cattle deaths from Botulism are a result of ingesting preformed bacteria and toxins.  This can happen when cattle chew bones they may find in paddocks.  But it is often common in intensive situations like dairies and feedlots.  It’s a result of a decaying animal carcass being included in a role of hay or silage. 

So have a think about what might be in the paddock.  If you have any dead animals that might be in the paddock then it’s probably an idea to dispose of it rather than let it decay and potentially end up in a fodder bale.  You might want to drag it to another part of the farm to be buried or if its safe for burning.  Either way just leaving it to decay could put your fodder and more importantly your livestock at risk. 

Botulism can also be caused by poorly made silage.  It’s really important if you are making silage to minimize air pockets in wrapped bales and to seal pits well.  Rotting organic matter, which happens when air can access the material can create the right environment for the Botulism bacteria to produce.  In silage it’s often an issue if silage hasn’t reached adequate acid levels of pH 4.5 or less. This occurs when the level of soluble sugar in grass is insufficient to produce the acid necessary to preserve the silage. 

This means your harvesting is important, but also you want to make sure you plants are at the right stage of growth and you don’t leave it to wilt to long because the sugars will burn off.  At worst you can make it possible for botulism to occur, and at best you’ve just made an expense mulch or compost, and that really isn’t what you wanted to make!

The other thing to consider about hay and particularly silage is that if you bale up unwanted weeds, the preservation process wont destroy the viability of the weed seeds.  So don’t think you can use silage or hay to destroy weeds.  If it’s hot enough to destroy weed seeds your fodder is at risk of catching alight!  At the other end, if you are feeding a fodder that may have weeds in it, then Id suggest you be prepared for weed seeds to be capable of establishing a new foothold on you pastures.

That really brings me to one my last points about feeding out hay or silage.  Just remember the time, effort and money it took you to grow the feed, to cut it, bale it and store it.  Every kilogram of feed you make has a dollar value.  So don’t waste it when you feed it to your livestock.

There is nothing that frustrates me more than seeing a round bale dumped on the ground with half the feed being trampled into the mud, dunged on and ruined before it can be eaten.  Some really good research is available that shows how much hay you waste by feeding it on the ground. 

In general wastage is anywhere from 11% to 34% of the amount you are feeding.  The research say that the more hay you put out, the more you waste!  So if you dump a 200kg bale of hay or silage in front of your cows you can expect that around 60kgs will just be wasted. 

If you add the wasted hay or silage up over a 3-month period, you’ll work out just how much money you have thrown away. 

My feeding suggestions are to put your hay or silage into racks so that cattle or sheep can access it easily without wasting it by trampling, laying or crapping all over it!  If you are worried about weeds, especially if it’s a bought in fodder source, in that case I reckon you should try and confine feeding to a few selected paddocks.

The last thing, I guess its more just to reinforce my point about feed quality, is to make sure you know what you are feeding and adjust your livestock feeding program accordingly!  If you have made it form the best feed source you could grow, you preserved it and stored it well then you can expect your livestock to get excellent value from it.  But if you made it from a more ordinary pasture or crop, then you need to adjust your expectations accordingly.

If you do buy in hay or silage, ask questions about the feed.  I think its worth sending a sample away for testing for feed quality and then you will know for certain exactly what the energy and protein levels are.  I think it wont hurt to do that with your own fodder as well.  A test will help you set some benchmarks for your standard of production as it is.

If you are buying in fodder, especially silage, I’d also think about vaccinating your cattle against Botulism.  If you don’t know what’s in a bale, then it’s a good idea to protect your cattle before they start eating the feed.

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