Extensive forage analysis carried out by United Feeds is confirming that first-cut silage made in Northern Ireland this year has an average dry matter (DM) of just 24%.

In a significant number of cases, the DM figure is below 20%.

Across the board, DM is down 6% compared to last year’s averages. The fact that the figure is so low will have a major impact on the feeding strategies implemented on dairy farms throughout the 2022/2023 feeding season.

First-cut silage

In the first instance, wetter silages restrict the dry matter (DM) intake that cows can achieve. The rumen can only accept a certain physical volume of feed, and reduced forage intake will limit an animal’s ability to produce milk.

But it is not a straightforward issue. And ‘throwing’ more concentrates at the problem, in some cases, is not the answer.

The issue needs careful consideration and correct advice to maintain rumen health.

Members of the United Feeds technical team are now getting reports back from dairy farmers with autumn-calving cows that milk production levels are down on where they would normally expect them to be for this time of the year, and this is not a surprise.

Milk output and fertility

However, when the feed analysis figures are worked through, it turns out that the drop in milk output is smaller than the dietary factors would indicate.

As a consequence, it is believed that many cows are milking off their backs in an attempt to maintain milk yields at the levels they are genetically programmed to achieve.

This will come at a very significant cost – the consequent loss in body condition will impact severely on fertility levels achieved throughout the next breeding season.

A target of 12kg forage DM as a minimum will support healthy milk production. Herds that achieved 12kg last winter are struggling to achieve 9-10kg this winter.

A drop in DM intake from 12kg to 10kg is the equivalent of approximately 4L of milk, assuming metabolisable energy (ME) levels remain the same.

Second or third cuts

Second- and third-cut silages made in Northern Ireland this year generally have DM values closer to the target figure of 30%. But, in some instances the very dry summer weather potentially combined with reduced fertiliser rates will have impacted on yields of these cuts.

Given these circumstances, the United Feeds advisory team is strongly encouraging farmers to survey their silage stocks now in order accurately assess if they have enough to get them through the upcoming winter.

It is better to know the state of play at this stage and to take the required management decisions in a strategic manner.

Another consistent theme identified on the back of the silage analysis is the high levels of fibre contained within first-cut silage this year.

It is therefore crucially important that fibre digestibility is maximised in the diets offered to dairy cows this winter.