Uptick in silage production forecast to meet cattle nutritional needs

While much of the focus heading into July has been about wheat production those who depend on silage are also watching crop conditions.

Silage is big business in the High Plains, particularly in western Kansas, where feedlots need the feed for beef cattle plus the region is continuing to add dairies.

Holly Thrasher, who is a DEKALB Asgrow technical agronomist based in Stafford, Kansas, also expects continued growth and that enthusiasm is shared by her company, which has a strong focus in its silage breeding program.

“We are trying to bring a lot of tonnage and quality that growers and the market is asking for,” Thrasher said.

Corn growers, for example, may look to have grain picked by a combine but also need the option to have a forage harvester chop it for silage in case the ongoing drought continues. Also, growers have benefited from silage-specific seed hybrids.

She expects the need for additional feed stock to increase because of the growth of the dairy industry in western Kansas, which means more silage-specific hybrids. DEKALB also offers dual-purpose hybrids that can produce grain or silage so growers have options.

As they evaluate their spring program, growers often want to dedicate acres specifically for silage and have other acres with dual options for later in the growing season. This year, Thrasher said, as growers have faced more stress—most notably from heat and drought—a silage component can help them to diversify.

Once the producers choose the right hybrid she encourages them to continue to manage with mindset of using all the tools needed for a successful crop. Cutting back on inputs maybe counterproductive during the growing season.

“When we are talking about cutting back on resources it is easier to say we’re going to go in and chop this for silage anyway so maybe I can let the foot off the gas when it comes to my herbicide program,” Thrasher said. “But I’d really caution people against this (strategy) simply because yes we maybe going in there and chopping everything that is in the field for silage, but we have to think about what is that weed seed bank going to look like in the future.”

Growers have difficult weeds already with Palmer amaranth, kochia and pigweed, for example, and if there is not a strategy for control there can be potential nightmare for future production, she said.

Instead of trying to cut back to save money on herbicide expense, she said, staying intentional with a crop management plan on the farm produces the best opportunity for success.

If the dry weather persists, dryland corn growers who may want to increase their silage will need to consider additional management to maintain quality, she said, noting that’s what farmers faced in similar years in 2011 and 2012.

Aflatoxin has to be watched closely as it is considered an extremely toxic chemical produced by two molds—Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus, according to a University of Missouri Extension bulletin. The bulletin states, “Most of the aflatoxin problems on corn in the United States are caused by A. flavus, and the most potent toxin produced by this mold is called alfaltoxin B1. Drought, extreme heat and corn ear injury from insect feeding stress the corn and create an environment favorable to the molds and to aflatoxin production.”

“If you are going to chop, make sure that you know that what you are chopping for with drought-stressed corn that you don’t have that mold. That is going to be detrimental to silage and the toxicity risk to the animals,” she said.

Another challenge could be higher nitrate numbers in drought-stressed corn.

“Typically when we have drought-stressed corn the higher nitrate levels will show up in the stalks,” Thrasher said, adding most notably in the bottom 6 to 8 inches that is closest to the ground.

She believes producers need to test the silage with reputable companies.

Also, corn ear worm needs to be watched due to later planting that occurred in many regions this year, she said.

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Cutting right

Bruce Anderson, an emeritus professor and Extension forage specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says when chopping corn silage that following the right process pays.

High-quality corn silage often is an economical substitute for some of the grain in finishing and in dairy rations, Anderson said. Corn silage can be an important winter feed for cow-calf producers.

“All too often, though, we fail to harvest silage to get its best feed value,” he said. “Harvest timing is critical for success. Timing needs to be based on moisture content of the silage. Silage chopped too early and wetter than 70% moisture can run or seep and it often produces a sour, less palatable fermentation. We often get this wet silage when we rush to salvage wind or hail damaged corn. Live green stalks, leaves, and husks almost always are more than 80% moisture, so be patient and wait until these tissues start to dry before chopping.”

Normal corn, though, is often chopped for silage too dry, below 60% moisture. Then it’s difficult to pack the silage adequately to force out air. The silage heats, energy and protein digestibility declines, and spoilage increases. If your silage is warm or steams during winter, it probably was too dry when chopped.

Many corn hybrids are at the ideal 60% to 70% moisture after corn kernels dent and reach the one-half milkline. This guide isn’t perfect for all hybrids, though, so Anderson advises producers to check their own fields independently.

Corn kernels in silage between black layer and half milkline are more digestible, he said. Drier, more mature corn grain tends to pass through the animal more often without digesting unless processed. Also, older leaves and stalks are less digestible.

“So chop your silage at the proper moisture level this year,” Anderson said. “The outcome will be better feed and better profits.”

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].