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Planning corn harvest to minimize winter feed costs

Jim Salfer, Extension Educator-Dairy
September 11, 2011

Well-managed bunker face helps prevent spoiled silage

The best way to deal with high feed cost is to grow as much of your own high quality feed as possible. But for most producers, Mother Nature has not been cooperating this year. Following a long cold winter that we all thought would never end, the 2011 growing season has also been a real challenge. Spring had unseasonably cold weather that included heavy rains on a regular basis. Some crops were planted in May but for many, planting went into June. Once summer did arrive, it got very hot and humid but in many parts of the state the "monsoons" continued. The heat was hard on humans and livestock, but it really speeded up the maturing process of the corn crop. For hay, most producers have been able to secure adequate quantities, but the quality is lower than desired.

Many dairy producers are wondering how this year's growing season will affect their corn silage quality and feed options for the upcoming year. The three biggest factors that lead to feeding high quality corn silage are within the control of producers. They are to harvest corn silage at the correct moisture, exclude oxygen during storage and manage feedout. To maximize energy harvest silage at about 33-38% dry matter. If the chopper has a kernel processor, harvest at inch theoretical length of cut and start by setting the rollers at 3 mm of clearance. Check how well kernels are being damaged and adjust the roller accordingly. Ideally, you want most of the kernels completely pulverized. If you do not have a kernel processor, to maximize the energy in your corn silage you will have to chop as wet as your storage system will allow and chop finer to damage the kernels. However, fine chopped corn silage will not provide as much effective fiber as longer chopped corn silage. With high priced energy, it is important that we minimize the amount of corn passing in the manure. Visit with your nutritionist to determine what is best chop length and moisture for your situation. It is also important to cover you piles or bunkers to maintain quality during storage and feed out.

The growing environment also has a large effect on corn silage quality. The most obvious effect is on grain yield. Kernels provide the majority of energy in high quality corn silage. Dave Mertens at the USDA Forage Research Center Lab showed that weather after silking has a larger effect on grain yield and weather before silking has a larger effect on stover yield and fiber digestibility. Therefore, hot, wet weather, similar to what we experienced this year typically will decrease the fiber digestibility of corn silage.

This might be a year to consider harvesting corn grain as snaplage. The advantage of snaplage is that it can be harvested with a chopper with no additional processing, whereas high moisture corn must be further processed before storage or feeding. The key to successful snaplage is moisture. To minimize the additional trash and maximize energy content snaplage should be harvested right when the kernels reach physiological maturity. This is at grain moisture content of about 35% or a whole cob moisture content of about 40%.

If you will need to purchase corn to feed consider visiting with neighbors that may have very wet or low quality corn at harvest. They may be willing to sell you snaplage or high moisture corn at below market value. This could be a win-win situation for both parties. Some of the factors to discuss when pricing corn out of the field are quality discounts, potential crop insurance payments, drying, harvesting, delivery and storage costs.

Other factors to consider as we move into the fall harvest season include:

  1. Conduct an inventory of all feed on your farm. Determine if they can be segregated by quality and fed to the class of livestock that will most likely benefit.
  2. If you need to purchase dry hay, visit with your supplier now and get your supply secured. Hay volume nationally is low and our Midwestern hay supply may be in demand by farmers in areas of southern US because of the drought.
  3. Visit with your nutritionist about by-product feeds available and how they might work in your diets.

Now is the time to prepare for you your winter feeding program. Analyzing all of your options and planning accordingly will help to minimize feed cost for the upcoming year.

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