Time to make a decision on cereal based forages

Published 23 May 14

Time to make a decision on cereal-based forages

Whole crop could provide an answer to many feeding challenges this winter. The skill will be in making the correct decision about crop conservation, as Biotal National Technical Support Manager Roy Eastlake explains.

Following good quality first cut grass silage with average yields, many farmers will want to take the opportunity this year to maximise on forage stocks and provide an alternative forage to complement grass silage before this year’s maize silage is in.

For a few farmers, first cut was very early, with lower yields but good quality while, for others, yields were good but quality may have suffered slightly in more challenging harvesting conditions.

The good news is that both wholecrop and maize have yet to be harvested and it is possible that they can help rectify any shortfall in quality, quantity or both, and also build up valuable forage stocks. Farmers growing cereal crops for ensiling, or who can purchase standing crops, can use cereal forages to help overcome any limitations of first cut or, potentially, use the crop to provide a buffer against future purchased feed price hikes should forage stocks be adequate.

Roy Eastlake sounds a note of caution against cashing in on possible falling cereal prices early if feed stocks are still uncertain.

At current cereal prices, it may not be the best option to sell cereals as a cash crop. However, it is important to decide whether retaining crops as home-grown feeds is a better business decision than selling cereals and buying additional purchased feeds this winter, especially given the volatile state of the market.

Retaining cereals will mean that cash flow isn't eased at harvest but might allow savings to be achieved over the winter. It could also help ensure a more consistent diet. Farmers who are exposed to a volatile market may have to chop and change between ingredients which will have a potential impact on rumen health and feed efficiency.

Developments in harvesting and preservation technologies have allowed the harvest window for fermented wholecrop cereals to be extended. This gives farmers more choice about the stage at which they harvest the crop, allowing a variety of products to be made to fit specific circumstances.

The key to making the best use of cereal forages is planning. It's vital to calculate the amount of grass silage in stock as soon as possible and estimate second cut grass and maize yields. Get grass silage analysed as well to give a guide to feed quality. This will allow decisions to be made about the best use for cereal crop as a complement to other forages.

Where farmers find they are likely to be short of grass silage, look at making fermented wholecrop silage to provide sufficient total forage, especially if maize is not an option. It will provide high levels of energy, starch and effective fibre. Traditional fermented wholecrop can be made successfully with wheat, barley, oats or triticale and will yield around 8.0 to 12  tonnes per acre depending on whether a winter or spring variety.

While wholecrop is relatively easy to preserve, use a crop-specific inoculant, as the high dry matter puts the forage at risk of heating and moulding during feed out. Fermented wholecrop can be harvested at 35 to 75% DM, although harvesting at the 'soft cheddar cheese' stage equivalent to 40 to 45 DM is preferable as it maximises yield and nutrient content.

Unprocessed Whole crop is a high energy feed, rich in slow fermenting starch which, combined with the effective fibre from the straw, makes it an ideal rumen-friendly feed. There is also the option to delay fermented wholecrop harvest until the crop is more than 45% DM dry with grain at the hard cheddar cheese stage.

Where other forage stocks appear to be adequate, look at cereals crops as a way to reduce reliance on purchased feeds, harvesting them later and treating them differently from traditional fermented wholecrop.

Later harvested crops should be considered as a forage concentrate and will require processing or milling via the forage harvester to ensure all the grain is utilised by the animal. The feed will have a higher starch content but less effective fibre, due to the processing which is necessary for grain at this later stage.

The final option is to harvest as crimped grain. Crimp should be considered as a high energy, moist concentrate, replacing combined grain or concentrate in the diet, and allowing a possible saving in purchased feed. The crop is passed through a crimping machine which breaks open the seed coat to expose the starch prior to treatment with an inoculant and ensiling.

Whatever approach is taken, great care is required to maximise the value of the harvested crop and minimise subsequent wastage. Both fermented wholecrop and crimped cereals should be ensiled with a specialist inoculant to improve aerobic stability, inhibit the growth of yeasts and mould, and reduce heating. In numerous published and peer reviewed articles worldwide, inoculants containing Lactobacillus buchneri NCIMB 40788 have been shown to produce more stable forage and feed, leading to subsequent improvements  in productivity.

Both wholecrop and crimped cereals are very cost-effective on a £ per tonne/DM basis and can control overall feed costs by minimising the amount of spot-buying of feed this winter. The key is to make the decision about the best way to preserve cereals this year as soon as possible to ensure the best feed is made, given your specific set of farm circumstances.