Beef cattleman John Spain was already looking for a way to put up hay with fewer trips over the field. But the decision became more urgent after he was injured in a 1999 car crash.

Spain, who operates JB Ranch, Hindsville, AR, with his wife Becky, regained his mobility. But he could no longer endure the grueling hours on a tractor required for conventional haying.

So he switched from hay to silage, using a system that's less labor intensive and more weatherproof than conventional silage-making methods.

When forage is ready to harvest, Spain direct-cuts with a Gruett Lacerator flail chopper. The silage is blown into a Buckton forage wagon equipped with a hydraulically operated live bed.

He unloads the material on the ground in 21 × 50' piles. Before starting each pile, he lays down a 10' section of perforated 4" plastic pipe. He covers the pile with two layers of 6-mil polyethylene and seals the edges with limestone gravel. Then he connects a pto-driven vacuum pump to the pipe and extracts air.

“You can see the plastic gradually shrink down against the forage,” he grins, “and by the time I'm finished, a couple of hours later, it looks like a vacuum-packed food product such as bacon.”

The result is a nearly oxygen-free environment, which almost eliminates spoilage. He says the system helps him deal with the variable northwestern Arkansas spring weather.

“Much of our hay is ready to harvest from late March through early April, but we rarely have good drying weather then,” he says. “I can harvest this forage in the rain if necessary, and still have quality feed.”

He handles the process with just a little help from Becky. She smoothes out the surface of each pile with a pitchfork before helping pull the plastic in place.

Spain sold his conventional haying equipment. The proceeds paid for the new equipment except for a 90-hp tractor needed to pull the chopper and wagon.

He locates silage piles near his barn and in some pastures, surrounding them with electric fence.

“When I start feeding in the fall, the silage is where I need it,” he says.

At feeding time, he uses a front-mounted Tanco Grab to move silage from the stack into his forage wagon. It's unloaded on the ground as he drives across the pasture.

Spain says the high-moisture forage is high in quality. For example, one sample of 78%-moisture grass-clover silage tested 21% crude protein, 14% ADF and 28% NDF on a dry matter basis.

The silage is winter feed for his cow herd, currently consisting of about 130 purebred Salers cows, which are crossbred to Angus bulls. Yearlings and calves also eat it.

The silage supplements warm- and cool-season grass pastures, which provide almost year-round grazing. The base cool-season grasses are tall fescue and orchardgrass, and common bermudagrass is the main warm-season specie. The pastures have a liberal sprinkling of clovers plus annual ryegrass that consistently reseeds. Spain overseeds warm-season grasses with cereal rye using a no-till drill.

He also raises turkeys for Cargill, and uses the litter to bolster his pasture yields.

“Our land has a naturally low nutrient level and the topsoil is very shallow,” he says. “Turkey litter helps build our soil.”

Spain carefully tracks cattle performance on his 219 acres of forage. His records reveal an annual production of more than 600 lbs of beef per acre for at least seven years.

From April through July of 2002, he meticulously documented production on six acres. Sixty cows and calves grazed the area for three days, then he took three cuttings of grass silage over the next three months. He calculated his per-acre production at nearly 10.5 tons of dry matter for the four-month period.

Spain credits abundant, quality forage for his calf marketing flexibility. He keeps calves at least through the stocker stage, but often takes them on to 750-800 lbs. Depending on market conditions, he sometimes continues to own cattle into the feedlot.

“The lowest price I've ever made from steers going to the feedlot was $119.28 per head over what they would have brought as feeder calves,” he says. “And I've sold some cattle on grade-and-yield basis that beat the feeder calf price by $129.56 per head.”

Direct-Cut System Is Less Costly

John Spain's direct-cut silage system is promoted by Alpha Ag., Inc., Pleasant Plains, IL. The concept is borrowed from silage-making methods once used in Europe, where rainy weather discourages field drying.

“It's kind of the old way of doing things,” says Alpha Ag's Don Trott. “We're trying to make it simpler again, and lower cost.”

His company sells all the system's equipment components. Gruett Lacerator choppers are made in the U.S., but much of the design originated in New Zealand. Buckton wagons are from that same country, and Tanco Grabs are imported from Ireland.

The idea for pumping oxygen out of silage piles originated in the U.S.

“We added the vacuuming process to avoid packing, which squeezes the juices out,” says Trott.

For more information, call Trott at 217-546-2724.

Clostridia Are Direct-Cut Risk

Ensiling direct-cut forages raises the risk of clostridial fermentation, warns Wayne Coblentz, a University of Arkansas animal scientist.

Clostridia are often recognized as the most detrimental anaerobic bacteria in silage making, says Coblentz. Some convert desirable lactic acid and sugars to butyric acid. Others change free amino acids to ammonia. The result can be foul-smelling, unpalatable silage.

Clostridial fermentation is most likely to occur when crops exceed 65-70% moisture, he says. Forages at greatest risk are those with high buffering capacity, such as alfalfa and other legumes, and lush, immature cool-season grasses.

It's historically been a problem in Europe, where silages are often direct-cut and may contain only 20% dry matter, Coblentz reports. The risk is relatively low if moisture content is less than 70%.

John Spain hasn't had the problem, although Coblentz has advised him of the possibility.

“I believe John's success is due to the fact that he's ensiling primarily grasses, and grasses have a fairly low buffering capacity,” Coblentz says. “Also, most forages he ensiles are not extremely lush and vegetative. As grasses mature, moisture content generally declines and sugar content may improve.”