Demand for forage inoculant has increased year on year since Bright Maize introduced its own range of tailored products ten years ago. Business Manager, Charlie Dolphin, looks at how the story has unfolded over the last decade and why the sceptics have been proved wrong
The subject of forage inoculant can lead to some heated exchanges. Whilst most farmers now use them as standard practice, a minority still swear to you can make good silage without them. There can be little dispute that the minority have a point. It is indeed possible to make good silage without inoculant – but this is rather dependent on the quality of the crop at harvest, the weather conditions at the time and the clamp management thereafter. And even if all goes to plan, treated samples invariably analyse better than untreated.
For all that, the inoculant market is viewed with a degree of scientism, even by those who use them. A colleague described the selling of inoculant as the double-glazing sector of agriculture – which, of course, is unfair to the fine band of men and women who sell double glazing! Perhaps the comparison is made because, like double glazing in the 1970s and 80s, there does seem to be a lot of people selling inoculant – all trying to outdo the other as to which product is best. Competition is fierce; and, not unnaturally, enthusiasm for a sale among a few suppliers can occasionally give rise to a questionable claim.
However – and to the surprise of some – the production and sale of inoculant is one of the most stringently regulated within agriculture. Post Brexit, all bacteria strains and enzymes offered for sale in the UK are subject to the same approval procedures that existed previously under the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA). In short, the inoculant sector is transparent and there should be no bogus or unproven products on the market.
Bright Maize started selling inoculant seriously around ten years ago, essentially to provide a service to customers. It investigated the options and settled on a proven range of products that satisfied farmers’ demand and could be brought to market at a sensible price. We also ensured the man who developed the products – microbiologist Dr John Lear – was accessible to members of our team and customers alike.
Farm visits solely to sell inoculant could not be justified
Pricing was important – farm visits solely to sell inoculant could not be justified. If the farm visit is taking place anyway, that is different: but essentially the selling price could not incur additional personnel and transport costs. Nor could it carry the cost of glossy advertising and lavish show stands – to have done so could easily have added 30p per treated tonne to the retail price.
We wanted the price of a grass or maize inoculant to be under a pound. The day will come when inflationary pressure takes it above this: but, to date we have contained the price inline with our original objective.
From the outset, we had to be confident the inoculant range was effective. As a long-established seed and crop specialist – particularly where maize is concerned – there could be no compromise to the Bright Maize brand – all products within the portfolio must have high efficacy and deliver to expectations.
The full spectrum of dry matter situations for all forage types
Working closely with Dr Lear and his team, we developed a range of tailored inoculants to accommodate the full spectrum of dry matter situations for all forage types: these include grass, maize, whole crop, lucerne, and specialist high protein crops. All have performed very well, and sales have grown year on year.
The rudimentary principles of how inoculants work is not difficult (although there are some who like to a blind-with-science). Essentially, inoculants are made up of bacterial strains that fall into two categories: homofermenters and heterofermenters.
Homofermentative bacteria produce a favourable fermentation profile, rapidly creating anaerobic conditions and lowering pH as they ferment sugars to lactic acid. Therefore, efficient fermentation results in the inhibition of spoilage organisms, increased preservation of dry matter and reduced protein breakdown.
Heterofermentative bacteria ferment sugars to both lactic and acetic acids to provide aerobic stability both in the clamp and upon opening and feeding out. They have a particularly important role in higher dry matter forages which are prone to growth of yeasts, moulds and other fungi.
Scientists’ work comes into its own
In general terms, the emphasis on heterofermentative bacteria becomes greater as dry matter increases or where the material ensiled is more vulnerable to heating and secondary fermentation; i.e., maize and whole crop cereals. Often, it is best to use a combination of both hetero- and homofermentative bacteria, varying the ratio depending on the crop to be treated: and – coupled with the actual bacteria strains selected – it is in this area that the scientists’ work comes into its own.
This year, sales of forage inoculant has increased significantly, partly due to higher grass yields (maize yields are also likely to be considerably up this year); and partly because inflationary pressure on farm inputs such as diesel and fertiliser has heightened awareness further of forage being the most cost-effective feed on the arm. Whilst forage inoculant is no remedy for poor husbandry, it does minimise the risk of things going wrong; and, most importantly, it can reduce waste and improve feed value. At the very least, it is an insurance policy the commercial farmer should not be without.
For a full list of approved enzymes and bacterial strains used in Bright Maize’s inoculant brochure, please visit our website.