Corn silage: managing your biggest feed investment

Low quality silage is bad for your cattle and your wallet. Use these tips to make sure you're getting the most from your investment.

Silage is a valuable commodity. Spoiled or low quality silage is a liability. Low quality silage will decrease consumption per animal and cost more to supplement. Using today’s prices for corn and soybean meal, even a small quality difference in harvested silage will add up to over $112/acre of corn silage harvested. That means a 200-dairy-cow herd feeding a corn silage diet could have a variation of well over $10,000/year in feed costs depending on the quality of silage harvested and stored.

If harvested incorrectly, some common corn silage quality problems are:

  Too immature (e.g. milk)   Too mature (e.g. black layer)
  • Low dry matter yield
  • High moisture content, large nutrient losses due to seepage from the silo
  • Poor fermentability
  • Potential for clostridial fermentation
  • Lower digestibility
  • Starch becomes crystalline and lower in digestibility
  • Too dry, becomes difficult to pack in silo that can lead to heat damage protein and(or) molding

Good silage management not only improves its value, it also reduces waste and leachate which can occur not only at harvest, but all year long. What are some tips to help you maximize profitability while ensuring environmental practices?

Harvest at proper whole plant moisture (65-70% moisture for bunker silos). Moisture levels above 70% can be a point where silage quality declines and leachate problems increase.

Too dry silage will reduce digestibility (low 60s).

Observe new silage bunks and watch for leachate. Be prepared to contain it if excessive. Something as simple as having sawdust available to make a berm around the silage pad in case of excessive leaching can be an inexpensive way to ensure conformance with GAAMPS.

Pack silage quickly and adequately with about 1,000 pounds of packing tractor weight operating continuously for each ton of forage harvested per hour. Fill bunkers in a progressive wedge fashion and do not exceed a two inch packing layer if possible.

Adequate compaction does several things. Fermentation occurs more rapidly and completely, leading to less storage loss and decreases the likelihood of undesirable molds/poor fermentation.

Cover to keep air and water out. Covering the bunker and weighting down plastic dramatically decreases storage losses. Uncovered silage can spoil and lead to decreased intake in cows.

Additionally, covers help divert rain and snow and therefore decrease leachate. Some producers have begun to drape plastic over the silage and then extending it as a barrier between the silage and bunker wall. This successfully prevents water from penetrating through the walls.

When ready to feed, remove feed with minimal disturbance to a smooth, vertical face. This decreases oxygen from permeating the silage and prevents additional spoilage. Take care to minimize spilled silage on the silage pad. This will help prevent contaminated runoff if heavy rains occur.

Be sure to take the time to review these procedures with employees so they understand why you want these practices implemented. With a huge payoff in terms of improved feed quality and decreased environmental concerns, proper silage management is a winning situation for every dairy and beef farm.

*Special thanks to Dann Bolinger, Dr. Limin Kung and Natalie Rector for their contributions to this article.

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