Why we should all take silage seriously

30 September 2019 Gerhard Diedericks, Head: Santam Agri
Gerhard Diedericks, Head: Santam Agri

Gerhard Diedericks, Head: Santam Agri

Around the world, we’re increasingly conscious of what we eat.

We advocate for farm animals to be ethically reared and naturally fed. Silage – an ancient agricultural practice – is not only the most cost-effective way for farmers to ensure animals have high-energy, nutrient-rich feed all year-round, especially in regions with seasonal rainfall. It has also become a critical component of the agricultural industry and its importance has given rise to the annual Santam Agriculture National Silage Competition.  Now in its sixth year, the competition sets an industry benchmark, fostering better-quality feed – and milk and meat production – which benefits the entire agricultural value chain. 

As Santam we are the lead sponsor of the competition, which sees farmers compete for the title of top silage producer. Importantly, the data garnered creates a standard for farmers to measure against, giving vital insights into how to improve production.

By improving the efficiency of the estimated 9-million tons of silage created each year by just 3%, we put about R130-million in increased milk and meat production in farmers’ pockets, with the same production cost. This benefits the whole agricultural value chain in increased sales. 

It benefits all South Africans, as the more cost-effectively our farmers can farm, the more sustainable and competitive their produce becomes.

In a nutshell, silage is an environmentally sustainable practice that involves fodder fermentation and was first documented around 10 000 BC. It’s the process whereby a crop like maize, oats or sorghum is harvested when still green, put into a bag or bunker, compacted and then purged of oxygen, and covered for fermentation to occur. The idea is to harvest in times of abundant rain, then have  feed reserves during the rest of the year, and for annual dry-spells or drought as silage can be stored for up to 10 years or longer.  

Having control over silage quality and quantity gives farmers a way to ensure ruminants have optimal roughage.  A ruminant is an animal like a cow or sheep, that has a specialised stomach to extract nutrients from plant-based food, via fermentation. Ruminants find silage extremely palatable and tend to prefer it over hay. 

The three kinds of silage judged at the competition – maize, foraged feed-sorghum and oat silage – serve different functions. Maize is the main silage crop in South Africa and many other countries; it has the highest quality and yield. Foraged sorghum is drought tolerant so there’s a lower risk of crop failure, but its energy value is lower. And oats are great for a winter rainfall region like the Western Cape areas of South Africa, where farmers follow rainfall patterns.

These silages are also appropriate for different animals, for example, a high-quality milk producing cow needs high-energy silage, as a crop with higher fibre lower digestibility, lower protein and/ or lower energy will lower her milk production levels. Although silage is but one part of an animal’s diet, it’s a very important part.

The judges at the competition have found that silage has helped some farmers survive seriously tough financial years. By producing good quality silage, farmers save on costs as they grow the nutrients needed to feed their animals themselves.  This impacts the profitability of the farm as farmers don’t have to buy so much feed – which can also be of poorer quality than silage. 

Aside from financial sustainability, silage is also environmentally sustainable – which consumers are increasingly conscious of as awareness of climate change increases. Think of pasture farmers in the Eastern Cape using surplus grass to make silage. It’s a very natural and ancient process, where you don’t add anything to the feed, apart from lactic acid bacteria, which is 100% natural. 

Ultimately, silage is a way for farmers to take control of their own risk management, plan for years with reduced rainfall, and ensure their animals have the best possible diet. This competition is also about raising awareness of the importance of this ancient art. Especially for South Africans, who are increasingly conscious of where their food originates from.

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