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Oct 27, 2021

Silage ‘future proofs’ NSW feedlot

Oct 27, 2021

A small feedlot in the NSW Riverina has successfully ‘future proofed’ its nutrition program by adopting silage as its primary fibre source. Its decision to produce 2000 tonnes of ‘home grown’ silage each year will deliver a more cost-effective fibre source than cereal hay, as well as ensuring supply.

Royal Oak Beef operates a 3000 head feedlot at West Wyalong, turning off more than 6000 head of cattle for a range of domestic and export markets each year.

It is a partnership between Cootamundra beef producer, Greg Clark; livestock agent, Ben Hindmarsh of Jim Hindmarsh & Son, Moss Vale; and lotfeeder, Ben Maher, who manages Rodgers Creek feedlot in Warwick, Queensland.

In 2017, the trio teamed up to lease ‘Oakover’, a 300 ha property seven kilometres south of West Wyalong. The property hosts a 1000 SCU head feedlot, as well as backgrounding and cropping enterprises.

Since then, their team has rejuvenated the ageing feedyards and constructed new induction facilities, grain silos, a hayshed, storage bunkers, an 8 t/hour roller mill and additional pens, as well as spreading hundreds of tonnes of roadbase.

For the first three years, Royal Oak Beef utilised a simple dry ration comprising processed barley, cereal hay, a vitamin-mineral premix and water. “We’ve been wanting to incorporate silage from the start but we didn’t get the chance until last season,” Greg Clark says.

“We planted 200 ha of dual-purpose wheat in March. We were having a great season, so we put the cattle on it from late April to August. We were running one beast per hectare, so the crop probably paid for itself in weight gain alone.

“Once we decided we were going to cut the crop for silage, Ben Maher put me in touch with Alan Balfour from Maxheath Contractors, who put me in touch with David Lewis from Lallemand. We stayed in touch throughout the process but I left the finer details to them and focussed on what we needed to do.

“Alan’s job was to harvest the crop, transport it back to the stack and roll it; David’s job was to maintain the nutritional value of the harvested crop and reduce spoilage during storage and feeding out; while our nutritionist, Phil Dew, made sure we got the full nutritional value at the other end.”

An earthmoving contractor was engaged to construct two 70 x 30 m pads for the silage stacks. “We put in a lot of effort into making sure the silage pads were going to last,” Greg says.

“Each pad is 0.5 m high in the middle and slopes away to ground level on either side so we get immediate drainage. All told, we spent about $20,000 on earthworks but we need to be able to access them every day of the year, rain hail or shine, for years to come.”

The crop was harvested in late November, yielding about 25 ‘wet’ tonnes per hectare. The silage was treated with Magniva silage inoculant as it was discharged from a CLAAS Jaguar forage harvester.

The silage was transported to the stack and covered with SiloStop Max oxygen barrier film and then an outer layer of conventional white-on-black polyethylene film. The two film layers were sealed using truck tyre walls across the stack and soil along the edges.

“Cereal is hard to pack because of its hollow stems,” Greg says. “If you don’t use oxygen barrier film you risk losing the top layer to mould.”

The stack was opened in mid-December, with silage analysed before being incorporated into the feedlot’s background, induction, intermediatory and finishing rations. The revised rations now comprise cereal silage, lucerne hay, barley, cottonseed, vegetable oil and a vitamin-mineral premix.

“We were really impressed – the smell was excellent and there was no spoilage,” Greg says.
“The real test is always in the feed bunk. The cattle just took to it.”

An eight tonne excavator is used to ‘rake’ a one metre deep cut down the face of the stack each day. A 12 t wheeled loader then loads the silage into a twin screw vertical mixer wagon, along with the other ingredients.

“Keeping the face clean helps to reduce spoilage, which gives us more dry matter to feed,” Greg says. “If you work upwards, you can create seams that allow oxygen to penetrate the stack, causing spoilage.”

With silage on the menu for less than three months, Greg is yet to crunch the numbers but he has seen a noticeable improvement in livestock performance. “We are getting higher feed intake, higher conversion rates and faster growth rates, which reduces our cost of gain and that’s what keeps our customers coming back,” he says.

“To us, silage is about delivering a highly digestible and palatable fibre source rather than protein or energy. One of its big advantages is the reduced need for hay or straw – everyone hates grinding hay.

“We’re saving at least 10 minutes each load because we don’t have to chop the hay to the correct length. Also, we don’t need to add as much water because the silage is already moist. Visually, the new ration holds together much better.”

Greg expects the decision to incorporate silage into the ration will significantly boost the feedlot’s bottom line. “Silage protects us against feed shortages, high prices or variable quality,” he says.

“Last year, we spent more than $200,000 on hay. By comparison, we spent about $50,000 growing a wheat crop and then $60,000 harvesting it for silage, so from a cost point of view, it’s a no-brainer.

“More importantly, we have locked in our feed price and supply for the next 12 months. Now that we have the confidence, we will produce even more silage in those years where we can and try to put 4000 tonnes into storage, which will be sufficient to keep us going for two years.”

Technical Services Manager, David Lewis, says Royal Oak Beef followed the modern ‘silage roadmap’. “This operation was carefully planned from the outset in terms of feed requirements, crop management and storage requirements,” he says.

“The crop was managed and inspected throughout the season, it was harvested by experienced contactors using modern equipment, and it was ensiled and stored using the latest inoculant and sealing technology.

“The bottom line is that Royal Oak Beef is feeding a home-grown source of clean, hygienic feed to cattle that are healthy and performing well. The operators have achieved control over their costs and secured their feed supply.”

Greg says silage can be utilised by any beef producer. “If we can do this, anyone can,” he says. “About the only proviso is that your feeding requirements are sufficient to make it worthwhile using a contractor – I’d say the starting point is about 500 to 1000 tonnes, and that means you have to have the cattle to put in front of it.

Royal Oak Beef has about 2500 cattle on feed at any one time. “We occasionally put in our own cattle but we are predominantly focussed on custom feeding,” Greg says.

“Our goal is to work closely with five to 10 loyal clients from Queensland, NSW and Victoria. West Wyalong is a great place to feed cattle. We have feed all around us and there are 10 major saleyards and five processors within five hours.”

Soaring prices for feeder steers over the past 12 months means the team has looked to other opportunities, including feeding Holstein steers for 200 days and purchasing younger cattle. “Backgrounding has become an integral part of our operation to keep the feedlot full,” Greg says.

“By backgrounding them on silage, we can get them to entry weights sooner and in more consistent condition, and they are already pre-conditioned to the feedlot ration.”