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Self-feed Silage in the King Country

The search for a less messy and less expensive way to winter-feed their hinds has led King Country farmers Alan and Kerry Blackburn to build a massive self-feed silage pit - and farmers and deer couldn't be happier .The Blackburns farm in partnership at Ongarue, 24km north of Taumarunui over 378ha – 330ha effective – of predominantly medium-to-steep hill country.

In a first visit to the property in December 2015, the AP members identified significant benefits for the Blackburns in moving to a different way of wintering their hinds.

The original wintering system where hinds were set-stocked on a hill block was too vulnerable to the vagaries of the often long and tough Taumarunui winters, which the group identified as a constraint on hind performance.

In their first year as AP members, Alan explains they moved to winter-feeding baleage to hinds in a sacrifice paddock.

"It was a lot of work and made such a mess as the animals moved from the top of the paddock to the bottom to feed and back up again – churning up the paddock and wasting probably two-thirds of the feed in the process."

The hinds have now gone from being wintered on 150ha to 5ha. By the group's second visit at the end of June, a new self-feed silage pit was in place for winter-feeding the hinds from May through to early September. The hinds are then set-stocked in fawning paddocks. Surplus feed in spring is traditionally controlled by cattle.

The decision was made with the recommendations of the members of the AP, where the Blackburns learned the best position for the pit was toward the top of the paddock and that making pit silage cost 30 per cent less than baleage. In addition, they found the quality was frequently better due to better compaction and exclusion of air.

A suitable site – one of their best flat 5ha paddocks, with a knob at one end and away from waterways – was selected and a design drawn up.

Last October, a small digger dug two trenches 30 metres long, 15m apart and 1.2-1.5m deep. Reinforcing steel and concrete were installed in the trenches before the pit floor was dug out for a good dry, firm concrete base. Three steel gates, 5m x 1.9m high were fitted for the animals to feed through. The pit also slopes to one side so any water drains away perfectly into a paddock, away from waterways.

The AP calculated 30ha of silage, at two tonne yield, would be needed to feed all MA hinds for May to September.  Rye grass-clover cut off the paddocks was placed straight into the pit in mid-December, with layers of coarse salt for palatability, and 530 hinds started feeding off it on May 23.

The pit is covered with polythene silage cover and old tyres and two to three times a week the Blackburns were uncovering another length of cover. However, they found the deer are enthusiastic silage eaters, so they had to slow them down a little to ration the feed.

"They were pushing so hard on the gates to get more, we had to fix brakes on them to stop them eating too much."

During the latest visit in June, the AP group used the DairyNZ factsheet, How much silage is in my stack, to calculate the amount of silage (kg of dry matter) in the stack, which showed at 80 per cent utilisation there was 72 days feeding in the stack. There was also the option to extend days on feed by adding feed supplements to the hinds' rations.

Now the silage is being uncovered once or twice a week and the deer also get one tonne of supplement fed two to three times a week.

Weighing on May 23, at the start of feeding, showed the hinds averaged 119kg liveweight. A more recent weighing showed the average had dropped 2-3kg over the mob, but the Blackburns have been keeping an eye on individual condition and Alan is not too concerned. Running the herd through the shed at the start, they had picked out and marked two or three of the lighter ones so they could keep an eye on them, he says.

"They're not lighter now."

He's also pleased with the total cost of the build, $30,000 - $23,000 for the reinforcing steel and concrete, $2000 to dig and cart the fill away and $5000 for the big steel gates for the deer to self-feed behind.

"It's less than the new feed-out wagon we were looking at. We're absolutely rapt with it," says Alan.

"Our wintering system is so easy now."