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BCRC explains 11 ways to avoid silage and dry feed waste this winter

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

One of the largest expenses for most cattle operations comes from harvesting storing and feeding rations during winter months. Whether producers utilize a silage bunk, feed baled forages or swath graze, they will often see losses from spoilage, mold and trampling.

According to the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC), if producers take time to make even the slightest improvements to their winter-feeding system, they may see significant savings. 

In a recent BCRC newsletter, Prince Edward Island Department of Agriculture Beef Specialist Dr. Les Halliday and Duane McCartney, retired forage-beef systems research scientist at Agric Canada, discuss 11 ways to reduce silage and dry hay waste this winter. 

Limiting silage waste 

According to Halliday, there are five ways to reduce waste when feeding silage.

The first is using balers with knives.

“Coarse chopping allows for tighter packing of the forage in the bale, resulting in less air and a 10 to 15 percent higher density, meaning less bales to wrap,” he explains, noting chopped grass in baled silage will also undergo a faster and more efficient fermentation process than in regular baled silage.

He also notes it is easier for cattle to eat chopped silage, which results in higher intake and less waste.

The second tip on Halliday’s list is to ensure silage bales are consistent in size and shape when wrapping them in rows.

He explains wrapping bales similar in size will reduce air pockets, which can form when bales aren’t consistent.

“If a producer is looking to cut their costs, it shouldn’t be their plastic,” he says. “The plastic wrap around silage bales creates a barrier from oxygen, which is critical for good silage production. Without proper coverage, even a tiny hole can lead to spoilage.” 

Additionally, Halliday recommends utilizing double seal bunks or oxygen barriers, storing chopped silage in a bunker system and maintaining a smooth silage bunk face to reduce secondary spoilage. 

“An uneven bunk face, caused by feed removal, can result in a significant amount of air infiltration, which wakes up the microbes that begin to use up nutrients. This leads to carbon dioxide, ammonia and gas production as well as the growth of mold, yeast and certain pathogenic bacteria,” he explains.

Reducing dry hay waste

Similar to silage, McCartney notes reducing the amount of dry hay waste on an operation starts in the field.

“When cutting hay, producers should set their mowers to the widest setting,” McCartney says. “This will enable shorter drying time, lower respiration losses, higher sugar content and more digestible energy. It will also improve the fermentation process and reduce the likelihood of rain damage.” 

When storing dry hay, McCartney recommends arranging bales to allow sufficient air flow, which reduces moisture accumulation leading to spoilage loss. He also encourages producers to assess any leftover bales that may need to be rearranged to ensure there is adequate space around all bales.

Additionally, when feeding forages, McCartney says there a few things producers should keep in mind. 

“When feeding forages in round bale feeders, producers should ensure each cow has enough space at the feeder to reduce competition and minimize trampled feed,” he says, noting he has observed the least amount of waste when feeding with tapered cone-style round bale feeders.

“Producers should also avoid feeding forages directly on the ground if at all possible,” McCartney states. “Whether it is chopped silage or round bales rolled on to the snow, feed losses can range from 23 to 26 percent.”

To avoid this, McCartney suggests utilizing a portable feed bunk.

McCartney also notes swath grazing may be an effective practice, although it requires some additional planning.

“Cattle can be fenced into a small section, which can be cleaned up ideally within three days,” he explains. “Not fencing off sections for swath grazing can result in an unbalanced diet and risk of acidosis.” 

“Accessibility of swaths also needs to be addressed,” continues Mccartney. “To open up areas in times of heavy snow, a tractor may be driven down the swath or a blade used to move snow off of it. It is also important to provide adequate shelter, either through natural shelter or portable windbreaks, to prevent cattle from bedding down in the feed.” 

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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