Fowlers' silage hits new heights

Corrina RidgwayCountryman

As farming continues its trend towards larger operations, producers are adapting cropping rotations and stock feeding methods to suit.

One Esperance family has turned to mass production of silage as part of a program to maintain high stocking densities, while providing animals with a low-cost source of energy that also drought-proofs the property.

The Fowlers run a 16,500-hectare family enterprise, of which about 10,000ha is being cropped this year.

Andrew Fowler, wife Marie, brother Tim and Tim's partner, Kath, head the cropping program, Simon and his wife, Robyn, manage livestock and parents Richard and Elaine are part of the farm's overall management.

The silage produced on-farm is integrated into the Fowlers' grazing crop practices and helps to keep a stocking rate of 18 to 20 dry sheep equivalent both viable and manageable. Silage was introduced to the cropping program four years ago when about 350ha were planted. Production has steadily expanded since then.

"This is the biggest year we have done and we expect to cut about 500ha," Simon said.

Such large-scale silage production without a feedlotting regime might seem unusual, but it is important for the family's grazing practices.

This year, the Fowlers are grazing 6000ha of their cropping program, including canola.

Silage helps to provide bulk and energy in conjunction with grazing crops and pastures. Without silage, density and grazing practices would be difficult to manage.

As a result, pastures are put aside every year for the sole purpose of producing silage.

"The cheapest silage pastures contain a mixed ryegrass and clover base," Simon said.

"A good density keeps capeweed out of the cut and produces a stronger end product."

The Fowlers manage silage pastures, sowing the sterile tetraploid ryegrass Winter Star to combat the weed problem that could arise in later cropping.

"Due to it being a tetraploid, the Winter Star can't cross-pollinate with the diploid Wimmera variety, which helps to stop it becoming a weed," Simon said.

He said this had added benefits.

"We usually run a two-year pasture phase and it works out to be a majority grass base in the first year, followed by a clover-dominant cut the second year," he said.

"The nitrogen-rich clover helps to promote strong ryegrass growth and the finishing annual then delivers another dose of nitrogen back to the soil in readiness for the cropping phase."

Silage pastures are allowed to regrow after being cut to provide a second grazing phase for stock.

Silage is cut by Narrikup-based Colin Coxall Silage Contracting. The father and son team has been operating for more than 15 years and cutting the Fowlers' silage since its inclusion in the family's program.

Tim Coxall said the Fowlers were one of the biggest silage users in WA, using a rotational cropping and livestock system without a feedlot.

He said other producers might consider a similar strategy.

"If people look at what the Fowlers are doing and how it is working for them, I think more might (consider large scale silage)," he said.

"The value of livestock has skyrocketed and there is high demand for quality feed for finishing lambs and cattle."

Once cut, the Fowlers store silage in clay-lined pits which hold about 3000 tonnes on average. The use of existing farm machinery and materials means the pits are an inexpensive storage option.

Andrew inoculates all cut silage for better conversion rates of starch to sugar. This is a low-cost method of producing better silage.

"The cost is about 10 cents a tonne," he said.

"It's the cheapest form of feed per megajoule of energy that we know of and the inoculant also allows the silage process to work faster and convert more economically.

"It converts with a better type of bacteria, which in turn produces a better quality product."

Simon said drought-proofing the property had been an ongoing goal and the family's silage lasted in the pits for up to six years - and theoretically even longer.

"It has been hugely beneficial," he said.

"We had a tough late summer and early winter and yet we still managed to carry stock in good condition and hit our goal weights and markets.

"We had grass-fed steers going in early September at 250kg dressed weight."

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