As the silage cutting season approaches in Ireland, farmers and contractors are hoping for good weather and an open season to ensure the grass is at its optimum growth stage for ensilage. However, the pressure to get the job done in a shorter time frame is increasing, with the three to four week frenzy before occasional bouts of second and third cuts becoming more acute over the years. The strain on staff and machinery has become a problem of finance, with the contracting industry requiring ever bigger harvesters, larger tractors, higher capacity trailers, and more horsepower to pull them. This has led to several well-established contractors leaving the business, and numerous rumours that others would like to, but are constrained by the investment they have made in machinery.
This silage season will tell by how much this drop-out rate is affecting the overall ability of Irish farmers to get their silage made on time. While there is a degree of spare capacity in contracting, it is not clear whether that extends to large pit silage operators, which are the businesses selling up. Farmers are concerned about ensuring adequate and good quality feed for the winter, and many are considering how best to secure both the quantity and quality of the winter’s feed if contractors are fading from the scene.
Several ideas may be considered in a bid to finding a route out of this bind. One is to change the silage system, a second is to bring it in-house, while a third is to extend the cutting window. None of these should be thought of as an isolated and immediate alternative to waiting for a contractor and his fleet of heavy machinery to turn up; instead, they are factors that might be mixed and matched in a move away from such a system. One aspect common to all three is that they involve a greater management input from the farmer, which may deter those with a heavy enough workload already.
Whatever the solution chosen, all will benefit from a wider cutting window, and the greatest effect on this that the farmer can influence is the heading date of the grass leys he sows. Choosing to reseed fields to produce either an early cut or a late cut, rather than a middling in-between cut, will help insure against the vagaries of the weather and contractor availability, and so take some stress out of the season. Contractors themselves will be greatly helped by having this built-in flexibility rather than suffer endless calls from frustrated customers during the last week of May.
Having a larger window will also benefit those who choose to change their silage system from one major cut by a contractor to a longer season centred around bales or self-loading wagons. Either of these routes will reduce the investment needed in machinery for the farmer if he decides to take the operation back in hand. If that is not viable, then there are many smaller contractors with the equipment to make silage with a baler or wagon, neither of which demands a large fleet of machines. Running a forage wagon over a longer window reduces the need for a large harvester and fleet of tractors.
It is at this level of contracting where the greatest overcapacity lies, as it encompasses farms which spread their machinery costs through working for others. This results in machinery being shared more between farmers. Downsizing to smaller machines being used over a longer period will not put contractors out of business; it simply reduces the capital investment they need to make and pushes the season out to a month or two rather than three weeks or less. The machinery trade could also benefit from more smaller machines being sold rather than fewer large units; it helps with the cashflow as well as building in a safety margin so that if a machine breaks down, there is more likely to be a replacement available.
In conclusion, the silage cutting season is becoming increasingly pressurised for farmers and contractors in Ireland. However, solutions such as changing the silage system, bringing it in-house, or extending the cutting window could help alleviate some of the stress. It is important to note that all of these solutions require a greater management input from the farmer, which may deter those with a heavy workload. Nevertheless, a wider cutting window will benefit everyone involved, and downsizing to smaller machines used over a longer period will not put contractors out of business, but rather reduce the capital investment they need to make and push the season out to a month or two rather than three weeks or less.