We experimented this summer with silage making from lawnmower clippings. The first barrel wasn’t a complete success–mold made it several inches down the barrel–but it was enough to convince us to keep trying, so in July we ensiled 4 barrels of grass clippings sourced entirely from our lawnmower.
We opened the first of those barrels today, so I wanted to show you the results, along with a step by step explanation of silage making with nothing more than an air tight container and a lawnmower with bagger attachment.
Silage making is so incredibly simple I’m surprised it isn’t more popular. It took me quite a bit of searching initially to find resources that talk about it and in the end, we were pretty much on our own. This guide is my hope of spreading the word so more people can create a sustainable, nearly zero cost food source for their livestock.
Silage Making: Getting Started
To get started with silage making, first identify an area of your lawn or field that is free from chemicals and heavy dog traffic. Our main fenced yard is out because the dogs like to go there a lot. Since silage tends to blend itself together, we want to avoid areas where pathogens and chemicals are – the animals can’t pick and choose as well with silage.
If you’re starting in the spring, you can cut and make silage all season long, storing it all up for winter and getting a relatively large amount of feed in a small space.
Next, secure some air tight containers. Keeping in mind that your silage must be used up within 3-4 days of opening the container, choose one that will fit the number of animals you will be feeding. We started with 55-gallon drums since we’re feeding about 20 goats and twice that in rabbits, but we are planning to use a mixture of 5-gallon buckets for the rabbits and 55-gallon drums for the goats next season. The most important feature of your silage making container is that it seals up airtight.
If you are storing your silage containers out in the elements, try to avoid light permeable containers because light will break down the contents. We stored ours under the cover of an open air pole building to minimize the heat and light of outdoor sun exposure.
Silage Making: The Process
Making silage is as easy as it gets – you simply mow your lawn with a bagger attached to collect the clippings. In my research, I read that the grass needs to wilt for a few hours before ensiling, but our experience was the opposite – we had to add water after wilting our grass so the next barrels we mowed and ensiled immediately.
Because we were mowing a ways from where we were going to store the barrel, we brought the barrel out to the area with a cart towed behind the mower. While Rob mowed, I climbed into the barrel with a stepladder and stomped it down as much as I could, climbing back out to add more grass as he came back by.
We have a Craftsman mower with the standard double bagger system. If I remember right, we filled the barrel with seven rounds of both bags full and it took about 45 minutes per barrel.
Once the barrel or bucket is absolutely as full as you can get it, seal the lid down tightly. Silage needs an oxygen free environment to ferment without spoiling. Put your full container out of the way and let it ferment for at least 30 days. The barrels we’re opening now in January were sealed in July and they are in great shape. I’ve read about silage lasting for years without loss of nutrients, so long as it’s kept airtight. Silage making isn’t just about low cost feeding, it’s also a way to preserve fresh grass and weeds for years down the road. Imagine having a store of silage to feed your livestock no matter what happens in the world!
Silage Making: The Results
Today, nearly 6 months after putting our silage barrels up, we opened the first one. My first impression was of delight – it looked and smelled perfect, with absolutely no mold on the surface, hooray! It made a really satisfying hissing sound as the pressure was released on opening, too.
This picture was taken just after the lid was taken away. When we sealed it, it took effort to push the lid down onto the grass. You can see that is has settled some, but not much. In fresh weight, we got about 300 pounds into this barrel. Because it is concentrated in nutrients, animals require less of silage than dried hay. I haven’t fed enough to say for sure, but Chaffhaye (alfalfa silage) recommends about 2.5 pounds per goat per day. Compare that to the 4 pounds I estimate per goat for standard alfalfa hay. You can easily feed 40% of an animal’s daily ration in silage, if not more – some people feed Chaffhaye as the only ration, but for homemade silage, I’d assume the nutrient balance of lawn clippings is not going to be adequate as the only feed for your stock. Rabbits might be an exception to this, especially if your grass has a good assortment of weeds like dandelion and clover.
Once the barrel was opened, I was eager to start doling it out to everyone. We went first to the bucks and pigs in the barn since they were closest. As they did with our experimental barrel last summer, they showed little to no interest. Given time, they will eat it but they are not as eager as they would be for regular hay.
Here is Horny–guess how he got his name–sniffing but not eating. None of the pigs or bucks took even a nibble of the silage. I’m not bothered by that though; I know they’ll eat it when they’re used to it. They did with the trial barrel this summer even with fresh grass and browse.
I dumped out a 5-gallon bucket in their feeder and left to try some other animals. The ducks were offended I even asked, which is no surprise, but the next stop did surprise me in a good way.
Edit 5 days later. Here’s a photo of the does after a few days of getting used to silage. They have alfalfa in their feeder but come eagerly to eat the silage. I’m feeding 17 goats in this pasture two 5-gallon buckets a day and it is almost all cleaned up by the next day. The first barrel has about one more day left, so it will have lasted exactly one week feeding the rabbits and does at this rate.
Silage Making for Rabbits
The rabbits were lukewarm about the trial silage in summer, but today they didn’t hesitate, even though we’d just laid down a fresh bundle of tree hay for them. Look at the contrast between the brown silage and the green of the alfalfa behind them. It’s definitely different.
The rabbits’ results have me very excited. It would be quite easy to create sustainable food systems for the rabbits. We feed whole grains, alfalfa and kelp right now with occasional tree hay, but they are craving grass. With a combination of silage making, grass hay cut with a scythe and tree hay, we have all the forage bases covered. Add mangel beets and carrots and rabbits have nutritious winter feed without any external inputs. How cool is that?!
We had a little better luck with the does than with the bucks. Cherub, our matriarch, has eaten Chaffhaye as a main part of her diet in the past and knows just what to do. With her lead, the others will more quickly adapt, but today most of them were chasing after the buckets, hoping they’d have something better than what we dumped out for them of silage.
Making silage is an incredibly easy way to preserve spring and summer grasses for winter feed. Something I like most about it is the fact that we can do it low or no tech – a scythe could easily create enough chopping to make silage and a rake can help collect it all.
No matter if you live on a small suburban lot or a larger acreage, silage making is something every livestock owner can start doing today to live more sustainably. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Here are some more technical resources if you’d like to dig deeper. Keep in mind that few resources exist for small scale silage making, but we can get some pointers from the big guys and find what works for us on a small scale.
- Making Grass Silage for Better Returns: AHDB
- MSU Extension: Silage Part Two
- Making Silage Manually (YouTube)
- Cebu Goat Farm Silage (YouTube)
- USAid Silage Making for Small Scale Farmers