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Quality silage is more valuable than ever Part 1

November 17, 2011

Lance Whitelock for Progressive Dairyman

Most feed prices are nearly double their historical averages. And there’s plenty of debate about whether these prices will ever return to those levels and when, if not, we can expect any reduction at all and how much this reduction is likely to be. Whilst all this is speculation about factors that are largely out of our control, we do have the ability to think ahead—forward contract; use call options to control our exposure to feed price risk; and we must continue to educate ourselves about those strategies and when to use them.

And we always have the opportunity to save money (lower feed cost) by making higher-quality silage. In fact, the management of our silage operations can determine whether we make profit or not during tight years. There are three key steps to improve your profitability by improving your silage quality.

Forage is the foundation of a dairy cow’s diet. The amount of energy and protein a cow consumes through her forage determines how much energy and protein must be supplemented by concentrates. As the quality of forage increases, both energy and protein in the forage increases. As we feed higher-quality forages, we decrease the amount of energy and protein we must supply or purchase through concentrates. We are able to save money on purchased commodities when we buy, produce and/or ultimately feed higher-quality forages.

Dry-matter loss, by definition, is not visible. The evidence of dry-matter loss can only be seen when you have a surface you can use to compare size of a silage mass harvest with variable time points post-ensiling. This is possible in upright tower silos and may be possible in bunker silos if the silage is not filled above the top of the wall. However, it’s not possible to see two or three feet of silage missing in a pile that is 25-feet high. To get true dry-matter loss numbers, every load of forage must be weighed and the dry matter checked when it’s put into the pile, and again when it’s removed from the pile. Unfortunately, this isn’t practical at most commercial dairies. Thankfully, research has clearly identified the main drivers of dry-matter loss, and we now can estimate dry-matter losses in silage piles with good accuracy.

In a diet, feeding 40 pounds of corn silage per cow per day, this would mean a ration-cost saving of more than seven cents per cow per day. These economic calculations are only showing the value of saving the quantity of silage that was lost and assumes no loss in quality. Dry-matter loss in silage begins with the loss of the most soluble and highest-quality nutrients. Dry-matter loss means nutrients such as sugars, starches and soluble proteins are lost. Cellulose, lignin and ash are lost only minimally. Furthermore, dry-matter loss will increase the concentration of lower-value nutrients such as fiber and protein bound to fiber, while decreasing the concentration of higher-value nutrients.

Dry-matter loss means less feed is available. This lost feed must be replaced, and it is often purchased. Even if the replacement feed is grown by the dairy, it represents extra cost that wouldn’t have been necessary had there been less dry-matter loss. Additionally, because the higher-value nutrients were lost, we now have to replace them if we want to continue providing the plane of nutrition the cows need to perform at optimal levels. Yet these higher-quality nutrients are more expensive to replace—again increasing our costs.



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