By Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef Programme advisor Seán Cummins

Although still in July, the winter feeding period – whether we like it or not – is edging closer on many beef farms. Now is the time to ensure an adequate supply of fodder is available on farm for the winter months.

Peter and Thomas O’Hanrahan, participants in the Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef Programme and farming on the outskirts of Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, recently took stock of what silage was available in the yard after completing the harvest of a second cut over the weekend of July 12.

The O’Hanrahans were one of the many that were impacted by the drought in late May and into early June and there was a worry that this may have had some impact on the availability of winter feed supplies.

A number of factors combined to result in forage supplies falling. Firstly, reduced grass growth rates did have an impact on the overall quantity of feed harvested.

As a result of this, first-cut silage crops yielded 3.2t DM/ha (settled pit measure) and the second cut yielded just over 5.5 bales per acre (3.3t DM/ha).

A need to supplement silage at grass also complicated the situation, with 54 bales being exhausted from the winter feed stack between June 12 and the weeks that followed.

As a result of this, and to make sure sufficient silage supplies were present in the yard, Peter has measured the quantity of silage available in both pit (first cut) and bales (second cut) available in the yard and completed a winter fodder budget using Teagasc’s PastureBase Ireland tool.

To complete this process, the length, breadth and height of the silage pit needed to be measured accurately, while the number of silage bales present in the yard needed to be counted.

The next step in the process is to identify what animals will be kept on farm over the winter months, how long will animals be housed and what level of meal supplementation will be required for each individual age bracket / type of animals – be they weanlings, stores or finishing animals.

2019-born Holstein Friesian steers will be housed and finished over the winter months; later-born animals will be turned back out to grass for a third grazing season.

When this exercise was completed for the O’Hanrahans’ farm – using a 120-day winter for the store cattle, 120-day winter for the yearlings and a 100-day finishing period for fattening animals – they have a dry matter (DM) silage requirement of 245t, while just 244t are available in the yard.

This means the farm is one day short of the silage required to see them through the budgeted winter.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a relatively short winter but it’s something the O’Hanrahans have achieved over the last number of years. If conditions allow, stock go out to grass.

Creating a future buffer

Ideally, Peter and Thomas would like to have more silage available in the yard to act as a buffer in the scenario that the winter housing period needs to be extended or a repeat drought of 2020 occurs.

With 28-30 month steers being marketed over the coming weeks and second-cut silage ground coming available for grazing, the farm’s demand per hectare (kg/ha/day) will fall from by 16kg/ha/day or 37%.

This provides an excellent opportunity to continue to take out surplus quality bales between now and when the farm begins to build farm cover to extend the grazing season later in the year.

By keeping a tab on any potential surpluses that may arise, it also allows cattle to be offered ideal grazing covers, which will help boost liveweight gains from now until the housing period, as cattle won’t be asked to munch through covers high in stem.

Ideally, 80-100 bales would need to be taken as surpluses in the coming weeks to act as a buffer in case a repeat of 2020 is on the cards next summer if the housing period needs to be extended.

This silage – all going well – may not be required next winter, but it’s a valuable asset to have in the yard in case another drought occurs in 2021 and, if it’s not used during this period, it’s a valuable head start of having quality silage in the yard for the winter of 2022.