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Testing silage and meal feeding cattle over winter

With the large amounts of rainfall recently, most beef farmers have housed the last of the beef cattle by now, writes James Concannon, Walsh Scholar, Teagasc Ballinrobe.

Winter feed costs are one of the highest costs on any beef farm, determining whether a margin can be made or not.

Most farms across the country are reporting that there is a slight surplus of silage saved for the winter. Therefore, the focus now should be on what ration to feed and what rates of meal to feed your beef stock over the winter.

Test for silage quality

The first step in deciding what ration to feed your cattle is to find out what is your silage quality. How is this done?

If you are testing baled silage, it is important to take a representative sample. By this, I mean you should take a silage sample from a few different bales.

To get a representative result, it is vital that you should test silage bales that were all made on the same cut.

For example, you should take a separate sample for 1st cut silage, 2nd cut silage, surplus bales and bought in silage etc. The same idea should be used for pit silage, taking silage cores from various sections in the pit following a ‘W’ pattern using a silage corer.

If you do not feel you are competent enough to take an accurate sample or you do not have the equipment needed, ask your advisor for assistance.

Silage sampling costs in the region of €30-40 per sample so it is important to take a good sample so as to get value for money.

Once we know what our silage quality is, we can determine what ration to use and how much of it to feed.

Weanlings and store cattle

Beef farmers should be aiming to get a moderate growth rate of 0.6kg/day for weanlings over the winter which equates to 20kgs per month.

Higher growth rates can be achieved depending on when weanlings are to be sold.  If you have a 5-month winter, for example, your weanlings should be 100kg heavier by turnout next spring.

Target daily live weight gain during the housing period is 0.5 kg/day for heifers and 0.7 kg/day for steers for store cattle going back to grass in spring.

To do this, the level of meal required is based on the quality of silage. For example, May-cut silage (72 DMD or greater) will require from 0.5 to 1 kg of a good quality ration to achieve this growth rate.

If the silage is average or poor quality (62- 68 DMD), you will need 2-3kg of meal per head per day to achieve this moderate level of performance. This shows the importance of having good quality silage.

What to look for in a ration?

Buying a high-quality ration is important. Always ask for information on the nutrient content of the ration i.e. energy, protein, minerals and fibre.

The concentrate should be high in energy (UFL = 0.94+) and contain 14-16% crude protein. Minerals/vitamins should be included in this mix making up 2% of the ration. When buying a ration, the cheapest ration (€/tonne) may not be the best value.

Consider the value of the ration based on its feeding value (energy content) relative to its cost.  Cheap rations are generally not value for money.

Finishing cattle

For farmers finishing cattle, the single most important determinant of live weight gain in finishing cattle is energy. Beef animals need to be fed an energy-dense diet ensuring rapid growth.

By feeding the correct ration, animals add meat to their frame and optimize fat cover before slaughter. Rations for finishing cattle should have a high inclusion rate of maize, barley or wheat and be balanced for fibre to ensure feed safety for cattle.

If you require more information on winter feeding of cattle or concentrate supplementation rates, contact your local Teagasc Office.

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