If you know a farmer, you might have noticed them looking pretty stressed during the last month. This is because late May to early June is 'SILAGE', the time when farmers across the country collect the tonnes of grass which will form the majority of their winter cattle feed.
A lot can go wrong: the weather has to be just right; the grass must be at the perfect stage of growth; contractors must be available at the same time; and no farm machinery is allowed to break down. Pretty stressful!
But what is silage and how is it made?
Silage is preserved grass used as a feeding supplement in the winter, when grass in the fields grows too slowly and is of little nutritional value. The majority of our cows spend their winters safely in warm barns, but even the few hardy Red Devons who are kept outside all year round eat extra silage during the cold winter months. Silage is made in late spring/early summer because the extra UV light afforded by longer days and higher temperatures create fast-growing grass full of sugary goodness.
Ingredients for the perfect silage
Long, lush grass with a high sugar content
Not just grass- we include clover to raise the protein level of our silage. Protein is important for both lactating cows producing milk for their calves, and the older 'weaned' calves who need plenty of protein to grow.
Dry weather- but not too sunny. Silage is wetter than hay so its important it doesn’t dry out too quickly. However, wilting of the cut grass is essential to avoid the water content becoming too high. If this happens, the silage will become excessively acidic as it ferments. We aim for 25-30% dry matter as the perfect balance.
A method for the perfect silage
Every farmer has his/her own methods, but here at Tregaminion and Bruggan farms we make our silage by following these (not so simple) steps:
1. Use a Grass Mower to cut the grass 3 inches from the ground, creating wide rows.
2. Spread the grass out using a Grass Tedder to enable it to wilt evenly. Leave grass to wilt for 2-24 hours (length will vary depending on weather).
3. Rake the grass into ‘drams’ (i.e. high rows) and then pick up the rows using a Forage Waggon. This is a self-loading trailer, which chops the silage into 3-4 inch lengths as it picks it up. This length is the approximate width of a cow's mouth and deemed the best length for easy digestion (but not so easy the grass goes through the cow too quickly).
4. Deposit the grass in a Silage Clamp. The walls of a the clamp are made of concrete that has been covered in black plastic so that it becomes airtight.
5. Use a Buck Raker to build the clamp, spreading the silage into even layers, and pushing out any air by driving over it. This step is crucial as fermentation of silage is anaerobic (without oxygen). Any air left in the clamp will lead to rotting grass!
6. Once the clamp is complete, cover it in a clear plastic layer (like cling film) and a thick black plastic to shut out any light. Spread an even layer of tyres and hay bales on top to weigh down the plastic and stop any air getting into the clamp.
7. Leave the silage to ferment for the next few weeks, ready to be used when the cows are brought into the barns in November.
Farmers usually repeat this process 2-3 times throughout the summer (known as 'second-cut' or 'third-cut' silage). We also make big round bales of silage, secured in black plastic wrapping in the same way that the clamp is covered. You may have seen stacks of these standing in fields across the country.
There is no denying our cows find silage absolutely delicious (we wonder if its got something to do with the alcohol content). Sadly, despite the delicious smell, it is not something we humans can enjoy.
So there you have it! You can now proudly continue your life knowing a little more about farming, and next time a haggard-looking farmer explains he's been 'on silage' you'll be able to nod knowingly and look sympathetic.
Did you like learning more about the farming process? We are thinking about writing a #farmingexplained series and would love to hear your thoughts!