Multi-species silage is like free insurance

Some second growth for October grazing on Kevin Stebeleski’s pasture.

As spring turned to summer without giving up much rain, Kevin Stebeleski really started to wonder about his decision to give multi-species silage a try for the first time. Those worries turned moot as July rains and warm weather transformed the 100-acre field into a smorgasbord of forages that landed 8.5 tons to the acre in the silage mound on August 7.

His blend from Elmy’s Friendly Acres Seed Farm at Saltcoats, Sask., was a mix of 10 cool-season and warm-season grasses, legumes and brassicas: cowboy barley, Italian ryegrass, proso millet, sorghum-sudan grass, hairy vetch, crimson clover, red clover, forage rapeseed and tillage radish with some sunflower seed from a local store thrown in for good measure. Costs for the seed, fertilizer and pre-seeding burn-off totalled $115 per acre.

Stebeleski was introduced to the merits of multi-species cover crops by grazing club co-ordinator Michael Thiele through his involvement with the Shoal Lake grazing club and he liked what he saw when a neighbour grew a multi-species blend for baleage the year before.

“So far it looks profitable, but I can’t really compare the tonnage to anything because I’ve never grown silage before. Maybe I could get more tonnage with corn or a straight cereal, but I thought the multi-species crop would be a way to utilize my soil better and get nutrients back into the soil,” Stebeleski says.

He and is wife, Crystal, and grown children, Kory and Shaylin, operate Happy Haven Charolais, near Oakburn, Man., where he also holds down a seasonal position with Shur-Gro, a local crop input retailer. The cost of keeping pace with the price of equipment to grain farm influenced their decision to focus on cattle and he is fortunate to have arrangements with neighbours to be able to bale all the barley straw they need and with his cousin to do the seeding operations in return for help hauling grain.

The silage field was an old hayfield that he had taken one cut from last year for bales and then sprayed out and direct seeded to oats for baleage. After a pre-seeding burn-off this spring, the multi-species blend was direct seeded into the oat stubble on May 28.

It was off to a good start, missing the late-spring frost that took out a lot of canola in the region, but doubts set in as dry conditions stretched well into June.

Summer rains brought on Kevin Stebeleski’s first multi-species blend.
Summer rains brought on Kevin Stebeleski’s first multi-species blend. photo: Supplied

“Even at that, there was always something growing, just at different stages. Some species grow fast early on and some pick up later on and they seem to work off each other,” he explains.

From what he observed, the forage rapeseed was probably the weakest in the blend, but that may have been due to high flea beetle pressure in his area this spring.

On the impressive side, he’d have to say tillage radish with its immense root that punches into the soil that will release nutrients as it rots really caught his eye.

For regrowth, the Italian ryegrass, both clovers and even the barley, which had started heading out again by mid-September, had him thinking about how to make the best use of the lush second growth.

Thanks to late-season rains, including five inches the week before, and no killing frost, the perennial pastures in his rotational grazing system had capacity to carry the cattle well into October. Considering the short hay crop because of the dry spell early on, his inclination was to swath the second growth on the silage field, or most likely cross-fence it for later grazing.

He has been forewarned about the prussic-acid caution on feeding sorghum-sudan grass after a killing frost. The rapid buildup of hydrocyanic acid in the plant that converts to prussic acid in the rumen can be deadly for cattle. The natural process that releases the hydrocyanic acid is usually complete within a week or two, so hay and silage are safe. Grazing should be postponed until the plants are dry and brown (Forage-Sorghum-Sudan Grass Fact sheet).

Stebeleski would also venture to say that the crop probably should have been left standing to mature another couple of weeks before cutting to reduce the moisture content. As best-laid plans would have it, he and three others had already booked a custom silaging outfit and even though all of their fields could have used some extra time, they decided to go ahead as scheduled instead of chancing that the custom operator would have an opening later on.

Feeding silage will be another new step. To start, he plans to feed it to the cows and make do the same way as usual by spreading hay and straw with the bale processor and then mixing the silage into the windrow with the front-end loader. He’ll come up with plan B if there seems to be too much waste.

The silage analysis, performed at Cumberland Valley Analytical Services, Hagerstown, Maryland ( shows the silage sample was 74 per moisture. On a dry-matter basis, crude protein was 12.8 per cent, total digestible nutrients (energy value) was calculated at 58 per cent, calcium was 0.84 per cent and phosphorus was 0.30 per cent. Acid detergent fibre (undigestible fibre) was 39.8 per cent and neutral detergent fibre (partially digestible fibre) was 54.6 per cent. The relative feed value (RFV) was 99.

According to the company’s document “Understanding Your Lab Report,” RFV ranks feeds according to their overall nutritive value relative to the nutritive value of full-bloom alfalfa hay with ADF of 41 per cent and NDF of 53 per cent on a dry-matter basis, which is given an RFV of 100. A forage with an RFV greater than 100 is of higher quality than full-bloom alfalfa hay, and vice versa.

RFV is a quick way to compare forages on the basis of energy intake and is calculated using sample analysis results for NDF (indicator of forage intake) and ADF (indicator of digestibility). The company suggests that, because of inherent variability in measuring ADF and NDF, forages with RFVs within five points are comparable.

Another limitation is that the RFV calculation assumes constant relationships between NDF and intake, and ADF and digestibility. Two forages with the same NDF levels, could differ in digestibility, result in differing intakes. Oftentimes, the RFV of high-quality forages is underestimated because the intake is underestimated.

Another important profitability factor next spring will be his soil test results.

“I’m hoping by adding residue to the soil I will be able to produce some of my own fertilizer and eventually I might be able to eliminate at least the nitrogen from my fertilizer blend. If I can produce more for less, whether it’s silage, hay or cattle, then maybe I will be able to stay in farming longer,” Stebeleski sums up.

He’d be happy to share his experience and thoughts and can be reached at 204-234-5425.

The power of diversity

“This is something I’ve been trying to promote within the clubs for lots of good reasons,” Thiele says. “With monocultures, farmers are worn down fighting one thing or another — insects, disease, too much rain, too little rain. With a diverse mix of plants there will be something that can handle those stresses better than others and buffer them for the other species. It’s risk management, like insurance for free.”

The telling moment for him was on a tour a few years ago during a dry, hot summer in the Bismark area of North Dakota where producers have been developing the use of multi-species cover crops for some time now. Five-acre plots had been sown, the first with one species, the second with two species and so on down the line to the eighth plot with eight species. Flea beetles and drought had killed the radish in the first plot and the radish and turnips in the second plot, but signs of life improved each plot on the way to the end where the eight-species mix was green and growing as if conditions had been quite ideal.

When there is a diverse mix of cool- and warm-season plants (grasses, legumes and forbes) with differing physiology, root and leaf sizes and shapes, some plants will be fixing nitrogen, some will be shading others and the soil from heat, and roots will be feeding the soil microbiology at various depths to increase water absorption and organic matter.

“Plant roots on their own aren’t very capable of extracting nutrients from soil,” Thiele explains. “They depend on the soil biology to extract minerals. In exchange, plant photosynthesis captures sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to create sugars that feed the soil biology. Healthy soil. Healthy plants. Healthy animals and people.”

Commercial fertilizer shuts down soil biology building a dependence on having nutrients supplied year after year, he adds. There’s probably lots of mineral there already. The missing link is robust soil biology so that plants can make use of it.

“Cover crops package up all of this nicely and you can start by making little changes here and there. Just two species together will bump productivity. Some studies show it can increase yield by 50 to 60 per cent,” he says.

Looking at the cost of growing monoculture corn and yield, versus the cost of a cover crop and yield for cattle feed, there’s more to consider than tonnage alone because of the spinoff benefits from multi-species crops. In addition to the soil-building and production risk-mitigation angles, multi-species crops offer lots of options for use all season long because they provide more than one graze, cut or combination of the two, and in this way can be part of a management plan for proper use of other forages. They greatly reduce any feed toxicity issue that may arise because the susceptible affected plants are sprinkled throughout the stand so that the animals take mouthfuls of lots of other plants to dilute the effect.

Thiele can be reached at 204-365-6334 or [email protected].

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