Silage production has been around for at least 3 000 years and is used as a natural source of forage for both sheep and cattle. Compared to other animal feeds such as hay, silage has a consistent quality and a higher energy content.

Silage is made through the fermentation of high moisture crops that contain approximately 50-70% water. One of the many benefits of silage, is that it preserves more nutrients per hectare because of the decrease in field loss. It also allows for the conservation of digestible fibre, energy and protein, making the digestive process easier for ruminant animals.

Silage quality

The harvesting of plants used in silage should be performed at the optimum time as it directly affects the quality of the harvest. Higher yields are achieved as plants mature, but the optimum quality of the plant will decrease over time, which greatly emphasises keeping to a set harvesting schedule.

Maize  grain contains 65% of all the energy  in maize silage. Ultimately, the higher the grain content, the more energy-rich the silage will be. However, it is important to remember that the high fibre content in the grass component of maize will also affect the energy density of the animals’ dry matter (DM) intake.

Forage quality is affected by the crop and cultivar chosen, as well as factors such as the environment, which includes water, sunlight, heat and soil quality. The silage maize cultivar chosen also contributes to the yield and quality of the silage.

The implications of drought

Climate change and the drought often associated with it, places enormous pressure on the agricultural sector.

Increases in temperature, changes in precipitation patterns and extreme weather events can all lead to lower yields. Most farmers are very aware of the implications of climate change and drought, yet many of them neglect to build a fodder bank for challenging times.  

For the most part, modern irrigation systems can protect against crop damage caused by harsh climate conditions. According to Prof Robin Meeske of the Outeniqua Research Farm, efforts to increase soil water retention should be a priority for farmers who are subject to environmental conditions but want to invest in making their own silage. Prof. Meeske is also the architect of the Santam Agriculture National Silage Competition’s protocol and he is responsible for overseeing the data generated by the competition.

“Unnecessary tilling increases evaporation. Soil mulching, zero-till practices and other agronomic actions that can ultimately boost soil moisture levels, should be implemented by farmers who don’t have an irrigation system, but want to give their crops the best chance at a successful harvest,” he says.

The importance of silage

While silage production might seem challenging, not producing any silage at all can seriously affect a farmer’s fodder flow planning. “Producing your own silage will also cost less than having to buy lucerne to feed your animals. You will also be able to minimise financial losses by not having to buy additional animal feed in times of need,” he adds.

Richardt Venter, a silage consultant at AgSci Unlimited and co-ordinator of the Santam Agriculture National Silage Competition, says that silage plays an important role in aiding farmers in times of drought. “Silage is the best long-term storage solution of all roughage. It can be stored for up to ten or sometimes even 20 years. If farmers have excess silage left from a previous planting season and is currently unable to produce more silage because of adverse climate conditions, they won’t necessarily suffer a financial loss.”

During dry winter months there is also a greater chance of veld fires destroying grazing lands or stored feed reserves. According to Venter, farmers that have their own silage will have the best means to feeding their animals if a portion of their feeds or grazing lands are burnt down.

“If you have a silage bunker then you are more equipped to face any challenge, whether it is financial or in the form of drought. Compared to hay, silage is also less likely to catch fire because of its higher moisture content,” concludes Venter.

When it comes down to it, producing silage allows farmers to take control of their own risk management. By planning ahead, farmers can mitigate the challenges caused by drought and ensure that their animals have access to the best possible feed all year round.

The Santam Agricultural National Silage Competition

The Santam Agriculture National Silage Competition officially kicked off on 1 January 2020, when entries opened for both winter and summer grains. The 2020 competition is the seventh of its kind and is also the flagship project in the Plaas Media stable of media platforms and competitions. – Claudi Nortjé, Plaas Media

If you are an input supplier who wishes to enter your clients or if you wish to enter as an individual participant, please contact Deidré Louw on 066 231 2430 or email deidre@plaasmedia.co.za.

See the poster below for more information regarding the 2020 silage diary.