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The Perks of Self-Serving Silage

By Newman Turner

The only really valid argument I have met against my advocacy of natural feeding of cattle with high-quality roughage has been that of labor costs. Though I believe it reasonable to argue that it is better to grow foodstuffs than to buy them in these days of mechanized harvesting, no one has yet mechanized the feeding of silage, hay, and kale, and I am certainly not mechanically-minded enough to devise any machine that can, for instance, cut silage in the heap and fork it into the cows’ manger or even spread it in the field. I have often thought it ought to be possible to adapt the manure loader and spreader to get silage out of the heap or pit and spread it in the field; but no one has yet done it that I know of, so for most of us who believe in bulk feeding of roughage the hard labor and its very high cost have continued.

There is no profit in cash gained by replacing bought concentrates only to pay it out on extra labor; the key to profitable milk production is the growing of better winter keep than you can buy, better for both your pocket and your cattle.

Growing-grass is a much more effective food grazed, than eaten after any known system of conservation. Just as milk is more valuable to the calf when it is suckled direct from the dam, grasses and herbs, or any green crop is more valuable eaten fresh from the soil.

Strip grazing cattle
Cattle strip grazing the kale in field adjoining the silage pile.

I have found, then, that winter grazing of kale and other crops is not only more nutritious and health-giving to the animal, but more economical to the farmer. And pursuing this principle of reducing the greatest cost in winter feeding—labor—I have found that it is possible for the cow to help herself to all the winter food she needs. This applies not only to the grazing of kale but to the feeding of silage and hay (though of the latter I feed only a little, and that only to calves). My cows now help themselves to everything except the bit of dredge corn which they have while being milked.

My winter feeding system combines the self-feeding of kale and silage and also hay when this is used, all at the same time. The cow merely helps herself to either one or two or all of them as she needs them. My policy has for many years been to allow these bulky foods almost ad lib., to the exclusion or severe limitation of concentrates. But until I devised my combination self-feeding system it has involved a tremendous lot of labor—cutting the kale and silage and carrying it to the cows. Now this labor is completely eliminated. Apart from the winter-born calves which are indoors in the winter, work with the cattle amounts to little more than milking them. The long hours of winter feeding have now been reduced to summer proportions. Even when the cows were yarded at night we have racks which hold a week’s supply of silage and oat straw so that no food need be carried to the yarded cattle more often than once a week.

Labor costs with this system are of course infinitesimal. The silage face needs cutting about two or three times a week, according to the quantity of silage allowed. The electric fence is moved back on the kale each day—a matter of a few minutes.

With heifers and dry cows, even less frequent cutting of the face of the heap is needed, as they can be left to work rather harder than the cows, pulling out the silage from a much more sheer face.

Costs and Benefits

It is well worth learning how to do the job in the quickest way with a minimum of labor, machinery and unnecessary wear and tear on tires and gumboots. That means to make it where the cows can eat it, digest it, and spread the fertility from it; while all you have to do is to call them in to be milked and collect the top winter prices at summer costs.

Textbooks, including sections describing how silage should be made, are numerous—but I’ve yet to read the book saying how it is made by the man who makes it and feeds it cheaply; so I’ll attempt to describe my method, if only for the reason that it is the cheapest and easiest method of conserving summer grass and keeping it at its optimum nutritional health-giving and production value that I know.

Silage costs
*Editor’s note: The author’s historic financial data was converted to modern currencies and approximately adjusted for inflation, using the consumer price index. This most certainly will not correlate to modern costs and prices, but should be utilized for general directional trends only.

In making the silage in the field, water to moisten the grass is not always practicable, and molasses, to sweeten it and set in motion desirable ferments, needs water to dilute it. So, for our field self-service silage clamps, we use neither water nor molasses, nor, of course, any of the recommended acids, salts or other activators.

The site of the heap varies from year to year, so there can be no question of concrete sides or base. And though straw bales might be possible, we don’t use them because they make no difference to the amount of waste on the sides of the heap. Waste at top and sides depends entirely on the amount of compression in relation to the maturity of the crop. The coarser or more mature the crop that is being used, the greater the amount of compression needed to avoid side and top wastage. It is possible by the open-sided system to have no waste on the sides if it is built at the sides as carefully as the old stack builders built their haystacks; whereas with concrete or straw-bale walls, the silage always shrinks inwards from them, and moist air between wall and silage, which can never dry, causes decomposition.

Siting of the heap depends on the relationship of the kale crop if it is to be self-fed in conjunction with strip-grazed kale; but ideally it should not be in a corner. The site of the silage heap will become the most fertile area of the field, with fertility radiating from it in diminishing quality. This concentration of fertility ought therefore to be on the poorest portion of the field.

The fertility-building value of a self-service silage clamp is one of those free gifts which comes from thoughtful farming. Compare the cost of getting the same fertility into the field if you cut the silage, cart it to the silo or silage pit in or near the farmyard, feed the silage in the buildings or yard, and carry the manure to the field again to be spread by hand or even tractor-driven manure spreader. How much easier to make and feed the silage on the field where it grows, and to allow the cows to provide the labor and motive power to spread their own manure back to the field that provided it.

Kale price
*Editor’s note: The author’s historic financial data was converted to modern currencies and approximately adjusted for inflation, using the consumer price index. This most certainly will not correlate to modern costs and prices, but should be utilized for general directional trends only.

Growing the Kale

Kale is grown at one end of the pasture upon which the cows are to be wintered, as near as possible to the silage heap from which they are to help themselves, or alternatively in an adjacent field so that the cows may have access to both kale and silage at the same time.

In order to avoid the need to hoe the kale, to get a leafy high-protein crop instead of thick stems and to avoid the fly, we sow the kale in June or July. This also means that adjoining the arable silage heap the kale can occupy the ground from which the oat and vetch crop was cut for silage. This ground should in any case be clean following the weed-smothering effect of the vetches.

Where the kale is taken on an old arable field or a newly broken pasture, we spend as much of the spring and early summer as possible cleaning the land in readiness for the kale. This is done by the repeated use of the disc harrow or rotavator. We then sow the kale—always Thousand-headed which is leafier, more winter-hardy, and of greater feeding value than Marrowstem kale—with the grain drill, at the rate of 5 lb. an acre. This sows in rows approximately 7 in. apart. If we have been able, before sowing, to get the land sufficiently free of weeds, no further work need be done on the kale once it is sown; but if it proves that weeds are still present in numbers or varieties strong enough to compete with the kale, we knock out alternate rows with the 10-in. wide rotary hoe. Normally, however, no work need be done and, with strip grazing to solve the winter-feeding labor costs, kale grown and used in this way becomes a serious competitor with buckrake-built, self-fed silage for the cheapest winter feed for milk production.

Kale and silage fed together—with practically no labor costs—bring the cost of winter milk production just about as low as we are ever likely to get it. The one essential necessary to make these low costs doubly rewarding is to see that the silage is really first-class quality, so that it maintains a high milk yield without the additional cost of concentrates.

Cost of milk
*Editor’s note: The author’s historic financial data was converted to modern currencies and approximately adjusted for inflation, using the consumer price index. This most certainly will not correlate to modern costs and prices, but should be utilized for general directional trends only.

This figure covers total outgoings for winter milk production. A complete costing would require the allocation of interest on capital investment, rent, machinery depreciation, etc. But this analysis is a guide for the purposes of comparison with costings carried out by such centers as Bristol University Economics Department and Wye College. I would suggest that any farmer claiming a cheaper or more efficient system of milk production should join with me in having our winter milk production costed by one of these official and impartial bodies. I am prepared to challenge anyone to produce more milk per acre of land used to feed the cattle, at a lower cost per gallon; and this I believe to be the only true measure of efficient milk production.

Source: Fertility Pastures