Free-choice silage pit grazing a simple winter feeding option

Ben Stuart, a forage specialist and beef producer, explains how to make this feeding option work for you

A free-choice silage pit may be the right stockpile grazing option to reduce your equipment costs and simplify winter feeding.

Ben Stuart, forage specialist with Union Forage, first used this method of “grazing” silage to decrease winter feeding costs while maintaining quality in a system that’s easily accessible for cattle.

“We wanted to look at ways to eliminate that cost of actually feeding it out, so that’s why we started doing this self-feed silage pit so they could graze straight off the face,” says Stuart, who is based at Hardisty, Alta.

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Other savings include lower hauling expenses, “as we typically make these pits on the fields where the feed is grown,” he says. There’s also less manure buildup, as most is spread directly onto the field by the cattle, and any that builds up at the pit site can be easily spread.

While this system has benefited his operations at Hardisty and near Rhein, Sask., he’s found there are a number of considerations to ensure this works properly. To start, feed quality is crucial.

“The higher the quality, the better the utilization that we’ll get and the less wastage.”

Compared to a traditional silage pit, these pits aren’t as high, meaning there is more surface area per tonne of silage. Stuart’s silage pits are generally eight feet high in the centre, then slightly sloping down on the sides to allow for any runoff on the plastic. The pit face will range from 80 to 120 feet, which will accommodate about 200 to 300 head, respectively.

Stuart’s silage grazing pits are generally eight feet high in the centre, with a slight slope to the sides to allow runoff.
photo: Ben Stuart

To control the amount of silage available to the cattle, an electric fencing wire is strung along the face using fibreglass rods. Stuart will typically move the wire once a day, pushing the rods farther back into the face, and on particularly cold days he’ll move it both morning and night to give the cattle more to eat. The key is to make sure “that we’re getting good cleanup and good utilization before we give them more feed.”

Stuart advises placing the silage pit in a sheltered area. Positioning the face towards the south is ideal.

“You’ll get less freezing because it gets more sunlight on it during the day,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll open up both ends, and if we know we’re going to open up both ends we’ll set it east-west so it catches some morning sun on one end and afternoon sun on the other.”

He also recommends creating a slope running backwards from the feeding face for additional runoff. “It doesn’t have to be a very steep slope, but as long as there is a gradient running away from the face, that way everything runs off and any moisture runs away from the face. If it at all runs into the face, that’s where you get a lot more wastage, and any feed that they don’t eat kind of gets kicked into the face.”

By providing the cattle easy access to the face, Stuart has found it to be very simple to get his cattle to graze in this manner. Using a lower voltage on the electric fencing can help ensure cattle don’t receive unnecessary electric shocks from the wire and avoid the face.

“There’s typically a lot of room underneath the wire and even above the wire for them to be able to graze without getting a shock,” he says.

Stuart typically moves the wire once a day by pushing the rods farther into the face. On particularly cold days, he’ll move them morning and night.
photo: Ben Stuart

Just like conventional silage pits, these grazing silage pits can be carried over through the winter if covered correctly and weighted down well. “If that pit gets damaged and there’s leaks in it, then you’re going to want to use it up sooner rather than later because it’s a shallower pit (and) any spoilage can be significant,” he says.

In addition to having the insurance of this feed source through winter, this system can be used to have extra feed on hand in the event of a drought.

“For us, we need to know that we’ve got six or seven months of feed up our sleeve as we go into any winter, and if we don’t utilize that feed or use it all up that winter, then we’ll push it further ahead into other years. That’s the advantage of silage,” says Stuart.

“What that insurance allows us to do is then be able to experiment and play around with a few different other grazing options that maybe are higher risk than having silage and feeding that.”

In this case, Stuart will often use a second winter grazing method, such as bale grazing or swath grazing, in the same paddock to help monitor feed intake. This also works from a feed cost perspective, in terms of using a cheaper secondary source to supplement the higher-quality silage.

“If they’re not cleaning up the silage, for instance, we’ll give them less swaths, and if they’re cleaning up the silage really well we can control it that way,” he explains. “They’ve always got something to eat, and that way if there’s some cows that don’t go to the pit for any reason they do have another food source.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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