You harvested your 2017 corn silage — now what?

Phil Krueger for DairyBusiness

Farmers faced numerous challenges during the 2017 growing season. Corn silage quality is going to vary from excellent to poor depending on when it was planted, the weather and growing conditions thereafter, its condition at harvest, and how it fermented. No matter your situation, it’s time to start making choices and decisions with the corn silage you are working with.

Measure silage quality throughout the year

Producing the highest-quality corn silage possible is a must — and tracking its quality throughout the year is necessary to ensure you’re making and adjusting rations for success. As the crop was chopped and stored, you pulled samples to evaluate the quality before storage. But now what?  Evaluate those results to get a general idea of the quality you have. I recommend testing silage throughout the year to continue tracking quality and adjusting the ration to keep your cows performing optimally. Use these tips as you pull your samples before feeding.

 

  • Prepare a representative sample. This sounds easy, but it is often overlooked, resulting in misinformation. Receiving the most accurate results starts with a quality sample. Remove enough silage from storage to represent a day’s feeding and blend it thoroughly in your TMR mixer or with the loader bucket. Reach deep into the pile with a cup to scoop several samples, making sure not to lose kernels or pieces of cob, then place them in a clean, dry bucket. Next, dump the silage in the bucket onto a clean, dry and smooth surface. Mix thoroughly then divide the silage sample in half with a rigid but thin instrument, like a clip board. Discard half and remix the remaining half, following the same procedure until you have the amount of silage needed for lab analysis. Place your final sample in a sealable plastic bag, removing as much air as possible, and seal. For even better results, I recommend sending a couple samples with each submission and averaging the results. Using both these procedures will more accurately represent your corn silage, making decisions and ration formulation better.
  • Use a consistent lab. With all the labs to choose from, it is critical to use a lab that provides consistent testing practices, types and procedures. Consistency is key to evaluating your corn silage over time and comparing your different silage hybrids. As you work with your lab, share with them what types of hybrids you grew. When it comes to measuring fiber digestibility, I recommend using in-vitro testing (wet chemistry) instead of near infrared (NIR) spectroscopy.
  • Work with your trusted advisers. Meet regularly with your nutritionist and farm managers to evaluate your results and adjust your ration as needed. Quality may be an issue for some growers who had a difficult growing season. Your nutritionist can recommend supplements and feed management strategies that can be made to reduce fluctuation in milk production.

 

Evaluate the 2017 growing season

I work as a nutritionist with producers in parts of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. This year in some regions, a combination of early-season abundant rains delayed planting then cooler temperatures mid-year left corn short on the normal growing degree units needed for optimum growth.

 

As we approached the end of the season and before harvest, plants needed to catch up and pulled nitrogen out of the base of the plant and leaves instead of the ground. A result is lower protein (nitrogen) in the silage.  To the eye, the plant looked dry but was actually carrying a lot of moisture. If you found yourself in a position where the plant did not dry down enough before chopping, you could experience poor fermentation and reduced nutritional value in the silage.

Fermentation is key

A critical part of the process for high-quality corn silage is fermentation. For best fermentation results, moisture levels need to be around 63 percent to 67 percent during harvest to maximize yield and quality. It is important to hit this sweet spot, where it is dry enough that it won’t leech valuable nutrients yet pack nicely so that air (oxygen) is removed and remains out.

 

Corn silage storage structure

Percent moisture
Horizontal bunker silo 65% to 68%
Bag silo 60% to 68%
Upright concrete stave 60% to 66%

 

Plan ahead for 2018

Now is an important time to pull together all your resources and records on the farm to look at what you are planting and how it performs in the field, feed bunk and, ultimately, your bottom line.

What makes growing and feeding corn silage so challenging is that the decisions you make now will impact your profitability for years to come. As you continue to be more efficient in other aspects of the farm, look at your forages and explore the idea of incorporating a highly digestible corn silage. Adding hybrids like BMR into the ration can improve your herd’s dry matter intake and milk production. This will improve your income over feed cost.

Don’t be tempted to cut your seed costs to reduce short-term expenses. Decisions like that have long-term ramifications like lower-quality silage and reduced milk production. Keep in mind your farm goals and determine the best fit for the farm in the future.

As you prepare to open your 2017 corn silage, consult your nutritionist, agronomist and seed adviser to review this year’s circumstances. This will help lay a solid foundation as you evaluate your crop after fermentation and make seed decisions for 2018.

Phil Krueger is a dairy nutritionist with Mycogen Seeds.  He can be contacted by email at [email protected]

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