Back in November, Les Halliday was fielding calls from Maritime cattle producers already short on feed for winter.
With difficult weather and loss of land for forage production in Atlantic Canada affecting winter feed supplies for many producers, Halliday, beef specialist with the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture, has seen how accurate forage inventory management can make the difference between having sufficient feed or having to seek other options.
“We’re getting upwards of over 50 per cent spoilage and waste on some of our farms, so we’re having to put up twice as much forage to get through the winter,” said Halliday, speaking at the 2019 Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s conference in Moncton, N.B.
“We always preach ‘measure it to manage it,’ but I think we’ve got to half-qualify that,” he says. “We’ve got to measure it accurately, and I think that’s where we find room for improvement.”
Halliday shared his advice for accurately measuring forage inventory to best meet the needs of the herd in the year ahead.
“It’s the little things that make a difference. And if you improve your efficiency, then your margins should be on your side,” he says.
1. Start with the soil
When it comes to using the right tools, Halliday begins with soil probes.
“If we’re going to feed animals, we’re feeding animals from the ground up. If it’s not in the soil, how is it going to get in the plant? If it’s not in the plant, then we’re going to have to supplement it,” he says.
2. Measure by yield when taking inventory
Halliday recommends taking the time to measure forage yield at the field level.
“We look at number of bales or how full we fill the bunkers or the towers or the piles, but I think we’ve got to be a little more proactive on yield.”
If your silage equipment has a yield monitor, make sure it’s correctly calibrated.
“If it’s poor information, it’s not accurate, it’s not worth having,” he says. “If you don’t have a yield monitor, if you’re marking and recording loads coming in from the field, you can use that as a management tool to tell whether you should go and do more soil testing and things like that to get your yield up.”
3. Reduce silage spoilage
Halliday can’t say enough about packing well when silaging.
“It’s all about weight, time and patience,” he says, adding that equipment sensors can help to adjust the intake speed if the field is a little dry. When producers use sensors correctly and chop finer, they’ll get a much more even pack, he adds.
“If you’ve got 10 pounds per cubic foot, you’re losing 20 per cent of that silage into the atmosphere, an invisible loss. Whereas if you’re more at 18 to 20, granted you’re still losing, but you’re losing a lot less.”
He also stressed the importance of using side-wall plastic, and advises slowing down when packing to avoid tearing holes in the plastic.
“If you do take your time and do a good job of packing the sides, we get very little spoilage.”
For bunk face management, Halliday recommends investing in a small infrared camera that plugs into your smartphone, such as models by Flir.
The infrared camera will show you the map of the face and where the heating is. It will also give you some ideas as to where the issues were when it came to packing it, he says.
4. Look for options to reduce waste
Halliday estimates almost 40 per cent of feed placed in round feeders may be wasted, in most cases. He shared an anecdote of a P.E.I. farmer who bought a total mixed ration mixer to reduce the waste from his round bale feeders.
“About a month later he called me and says, ‘I’m monitoring what I’m feeding now and what I was feeding. I just went out back and counted my bales, and I don’t have to make silage this year.’”
5. Consider how to divide inventory
When using your forage inventory to plan feeding, know what your cattle require.
“You don’t want to be feeding second-cut alfalfa to dry cows. That just isn’t going to work, and on the other side, you don’t want to be feeding really poor-quality forage to lactating animals,” he says.
6. Get the most out of feed testing
Take your feed analysis to your nutritionist or extension specialist to create a feed and supplementation plan based on the results, rather than just filing the test away. Another option is the Beef Cattle Research Centre’s (BCRC) online tool for evaluating feed test results. You can enter your feed analysis results and it will tell you whether the feed requires supplementation. BCRC also offers a winter feed cost comparison calculator for looking at options for your region ahead of winter feeding.