Many areas of the Midwest have been suffering through a drought since spring. It’s presented a challenge to many beef producers trying to feed their cattle. The dry conditions have limited forage options and damaged some corn crops. Many are turning to silage to try and reap some benefits from this dry season.
Russ Quinn of DTNPF reported extensively on a variety of different silage options, and the article provides many useful links. He largely consulted a recent press release from the University of Missouri Extension, and it provided a variety of tips. Silage typically isn’t made by farmers every year, so advice about what’s best can be extremely useful for some producers. Below are some recommendations if you’re considering different options for drought-stressed corn.
The top recommendation from all three articles is corn silage. Chopping corn silage is better than using corn for bales- if you have the equipment to do it. It provides you with more options. You have more control over the amounts cattle are consuming as compared to baled corn. Baled corn consumption can be difficult to limit.
Corn silage should make up between 20-60% of diet dry matter. Where you fall in that range depends on the stage of production, body condition, and energy content of the silage.
Good silage is tightly packed to reduce oxygen exposure and finely chopped. Optimal corn moisture content is between 60-70% for proper fermentation. If it’s too high the silage can be prone to seepage and bacteria.
Linda Geist of Farm Talk also reported on the University of Missouri Extension’s press release. Geist’s article covers most of the same recommendations, but also has a few additions.
When feeding silage, pile it on the ground and pack it on all sides. Don’t put silage in a hay bunker made out of hay bales- it’s difficult to get rid of the oxygen with that method. It also can lead to inadequate packing and may cause the bales to shift when packing. This could cause tractor rollovers.
Watch the Nitrate Content
If you plan to bale or chop your corn for silage, have it tested for nitrates at your local extension office. Drought-stressed corn can be high in nitrates, and may lead to nitrate poisoning in ruminants.
Kristen Ulmer and Mary Drewnoski of the University of Nebraska Extension also advised on how to best use drought-stressed corn in AgUpdate. Their first piece of advice is to be sure and check the chemical and pesticide labels applied to the crop to make sure that it’s cleared for forage and the minimum pre-harvest interval has been met. Like Geist of Farm Talk mentioned, corn can hold high levels of nitrates in the stalks. If that’s discovered to be the case after testing, rations can be diluted with lower nitrate feeds.
The ensiling process itself can reduce nitrate levels by one-half to one-third. Nitrates escape the pile as nitrous oxide, but only if the moisture content is adequate. Elmer and Drewnoski recommend a moisture content of 62-68% for proper fermentation.
Harvesting corn for silage should be delayed as long as possible. As long as there is some green in the leaf and stalk tissue- you’re good. To ensure proper formulation of your silage, test it. Measure crude protein, moisture, TDN and nitrate content before feeding it to your cattle.
You also might want to consider feeding green chop. This is just chopping corn and feeding it right away, rather than letting go through the ensiling process. If you decide to go this route, feed cattle right after the harvest, and only supply what can be consumed in two hours. If extra green chop is left in the bunker or wagon, nitrates will convert to nitrite- which is 10 times as toxic. So, don’t leave it sitting.
Make sure that each cow has adequate bunk space to eat. Optimal distance between cows is 36 inches. This helps prevent boss cows from overeating and more timid ones to eat their fair share.
To reduce the amount of nitrates in your green chop, set your cutter-bar higher. A range of 8-12 inches is recommended.
Baling Stover for Dry Feed
If silage isn’t a option, consider baling the corn stover for feed. Stover should be cut 8-10 inches from the ground when a little green is left, and allowed to dry down to stover for baling.
Grazing Drought-Stressed Corn
You can also simply graze drought-stressed corn while standing. But never turn your cows out hungry. Smarter cows will just eat the corn, not the forage. So what they’ll be getting could be grain and nitrate heavy. Feeding low nitrate forage before turning them out should help prevent nitrate poisoning and acidosis. Ulmer and Drewnoski recommend supplementing with hay and then grazing for short periods.
The dry growing season has left many beef producers wondering how to best use their drought-stressed corn. If you have the proper equipment, you still have many options. Our three sources all agree, that if you can do it, corn silage is best. But you can also bale stover, feed green or graze. Whatever option you choose, just be sure you’re keeping an eye on the nitrate content.