Opinion

There’s money in straw

The following statement might be akin to the old adage of ‘teaching grandmother to suck eggs’, but straw – irrespective of its quality – will be worth real money this winter.

So my advice to cereal growers with straw that has been lying for a few days is very simple: get baling.

The reality is that livestock farmers north of the Dublin-Galway axis now face the prospect of a feeding season that may well see them run out of fodder long before April Fool’s Day 2018.

Large acreages of ground destined for second and third cut silage across all the northern counties remains uncut.

And the prospect of getting any form of crop off this land diminishes with each day that passes. Furthermore, forage quality is now plummeting, given the advanced growth stages of the grass leys in question.

But, weather apart, there is ample evidence to confirm the ever-growing demand for straw in Ireland. Dairy farmers now regularly include this forage source in their winter diets, it is the preferred forage source for calves and beef finishers now use it in large quantities from both a dietary and bedding perspective.

And prices have increased accordingly.

I recently came across the term: Nutritionally Improved Straw (NIS). The product is made up of chopped and milled straw that has been treated with sodium hydroxide and pelleted.

The resulting alkaline product acts as a rumen buffer and provides compressed functional fibre.

A 2016 trial, carried out in England, confirmed that replacing dietary fed straw with NIS can be a cost-effective way to increase yields while maintaining milk butterfat. Specifically, the work found that feeding NIS to high-yielding dairy cows with good rumen health brought about a lift in yields of 1.63L to 6.34L/head/day.

So the future for straw production in Ireland looks extremely promising.

In fact, it could soon be the case that the returns secured from straw will soon outperform those generated from the actual sale of grain.

This is particularly so in the case of spring barley, where yields tend to come in below 3t/ac. The question then arises: is it worth including the straw quality and yield characteristics of cereal varieties as part of the assessment process cereal growers undertake when it comes to selecting seed?

Alternatively, should we look, again, at the role of straw shorteners from a crop management point of view?

But let’s get back to the challenges of the present. Weather conditions have been extremely challenging throughout the 2017 harvest period. Many cereal growers now have large areas of straw windrowed into swathes that will allow for little or no drying of the forage they contain.

Damp forages will, invariably, heat once baled. So the advice on-offer is very straightforward: Get scattering!

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