The demand for milk is highest during the dry season. The price is highest too. This is the best time for the dairy farmer to produce more. This is only possible with adequate amounts of high quality fodder.
Dairy farmers are faced with the perennial challenge of fodder shortage of fodder during the dry season. Where available the fodder, mostly hay , is often expensive and sometimes of low quality. Silage presents a viable and reliable fodder option. It is one fodder a dairy farmer cannot run away from.
At a time when maize farmers are lobbying for better prices for their maize grain from the Government of Kenya and the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), it provides an opportunity for discourse for other ways of utilizing maize that is grown in large quantities, and which is the maize cash crop for farmers in the North Rift Counties. With little political will from government to buy maize grain at the prices demanded by farmers, it is prudent for farmers to think outside the box of supplying maize to the strategic national grain reserve through NCPB. This way maize farmers are not used as pawns in the predictably cyclic chess game that employs a lethal combination of corruption, cartels and the mad-quest for political office.
Comparative advantage over maize grain
It is feed to livestock, meaning the pool of maize users is widened; both human beings and livestock. If the market among human beings is saturated then the farmer can look into the livestock market; feed directly to his/her animals on the farm or sell to other farmers who are keeping dairy cows and are not in a position to produce the silage on their farms.
It is possible to produce two crops per season on the same farm. While maize for grain takes 5-7 months - sometimes longer depending on the rains, maize for silage can be harvested at 4.5 months, depending on the selected variety and prevailing climatic conditions. In warmer climates, maize can be harvested for silage as early as 3.5 months. That means, with adequate water for irrigation, an ambitious farmer can actually do three crops of maize for silage in one year; this is better use of farmland.
Dairy farmers are yet to fully appreciate the role of good nutrition in milk production. With the entry of younger farmers into the dairy industry is set to change this. These new comers are buying high milk producing cows requiring corresponding investments in fodder, hence; better days for maize silage in the near future.
Farmers also fear making silage because of perceived complexity and risk of the process. What if the ensiled material turns into compost instead of the expected high quality feed for cows? By visiting and learning from farmers who are already conserving and feeding silage, then trying out on a small scale reduces this fear, possibility of errors and accompanying losses. Doing it yourself builds your skill and confidence in the silage making process.
Labour associated with preparing (harvesting and chopping) and ensiling (digging the silage pit and compacting) is another factor against the use of silage in dairy farming. However, even if a farmer were to prefer to harvest the maize as grain, there is still accompanying costs of harvesting, shelling and transporting to the store or market.
Ensile above ground
Above-ground silage heaps/silos require less labour to establish. They need well drained grounds, preferably with a little slope, polythene sheet to cover the compacted material, and a layer of soil at the top to prevent direct sunlight (and exert pressure to keep away oxygen for the anaerobic fermentation to take place). Keep the silage heap dome shaped to drain water away, especially during heavy rains. This method is definitely less daunting to farmers who are interested in the technology.
Tips for higher yields, better quality silage
- Variety selection:Select early maturing (you harvest early), short (you can increase plant populations without competition for light causing tall thin plants) and leafy maize (more biomass) varieties. With shorter maize varieties, silage maize allows row spacing of 50cm. Uniform plant spacing helps maximize yield by preventing uneven emergence, uneven leaf spacing and varying plant heights. Narrow rows can reduce the crowding of plants within a row, lessening competition between individual plants and potentially enhancing the amount of available light, water and nutrients.
- Ploughing:Plough early; two ploughings gives soil a fine tilth. Ploughing during the dry season removes perennial grasses like the noxious Couch grass.
- Weed management:Some farmers make the assumption that since the maize will be used for silage then it doesn’t require as much weeding as maize to be harvested for grain. Weed infested fields give less yields because weeds compete with the main crop for nutrients, light and moisture. Pests and diseases ‘love’ weed infested fields. Weed twice to keep your maize field weed free.
- Harvesting:Harvest when the grain is milky (dough stage) and has more sugar to increase rate of fermentation.
- Chopping:Chopping material into small pieces of 1cm – 2.5 cm; small material allows better compaction, bigger material takes longer to ferment and harder for cows to ingest.
Silage is high-moisture fodder preserved through fermentation in the absence of air. These are fodders that would deteriorate in quality if allowed to dry. Silage can be made from grasses, fodder sorghum, green oats, green maize or Napier grass.
An ideal crop for silage making should;
• contain an adequate level of fermentable sugars in the form of water-soluble carbohydrates
• have dry matter content in the fresh crop of above 20%
• possess a physical structure that will allow it to compact readily in the silo after harvesting
Crops not fulfilling these requirements may require pre-treatment such as;
• field wilting, to reduce moisture
• fine chopping to a length of 2–2.5 cm to allow compaction
• use of additives, to increase soluble carbohydrates
Dry matter yield of common fodders used for silage making is 4–12 t/acre for Napier grass, 6.8 - 8.8 t/acre for sorghum E6518 and 9.6 t/acre for maize.
Source:Feeding dairy cattle in East Africa, © 2012 East Africa Dairy Development project (EADD)