Super Food

The King of Cattle Forages

Even when corn prices were setting records, silage stayed a key part of this cattle operation. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Boyd Kidwell)

Silage has never gone out of fashion in Bath County, Kentucky, even when the lure of $6- to $8-per-bushel grain made many producers forget about chopping corn. This season, with grain prices down and beef at historically high levels, is a good time to give corn silage a second look.

"Corn silage isn't a cheap feed, but it's a good feed," said Mike Bach, who farms along Kentucky's Slate Creek. "Even when corn (grain) prices were high, we never gave up raising silage for our beef cattle."


Right after weaning is prime time for silage feeding at Bach's operation. He feeds silage to the calves off his 240-brood cows to help them transition to feed. Cows receive silage during the winter, in addition to hay and baleage (alfalfa silage stored in round, plastic-wrapped bales.)

Bach's calves are weaned at 550 to 600 pounds and fed to 850 pounds. They gain on average 2.4 pounds per day on the silage plus a protein supplement of corn gluten. They consume about 20 pounds of silage per head per day at a 500-pound body weight. As they gain, silage consumption climbs to about 35 pounds per head per day. The amount of corn gluten given is about a pound per 500 pounds of calf. Once they hit the mark, they are shipped in truckload lots to feedlots.

"We're trying to grow these calves and build large frames without fattening them," said Bach, a former president of the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association. He produces about 40 acres of silage for his cattle operation each year, choosing varieties specifically bred for silage. Currently he is using Mycogen TMF 2H747, no-tilled at a rate of 31,500 seeds per acre. His ideal silage corn plant has 14 to 16 leaves, compared to 11 to 12 leaves on some corn hybrids bred for maximum grain yield.

"The energy factory in the corn plant is in the leaves. There's not that much nutrition in the lower stalk. Of course, we also want high grain yields. If we don't produce 25 tons of silage per acre, we've done something wrong," the veteran farmer said.


If alfalfa is "queen of forages," corn silage is "king of cattle forages," said Bill Ramsey, livestock information manager for DuPont Pioneer.

"You can produce more pounds of beef from an acre of land with corn silage than with any other crop," he said. "Corn silage has the largest caloric yield per acre of any forage."

For example, one of Pioneer's silage corn hybrids (P1690) averages 9.42 tons of dry matter silage per acre. This same hybrid has a harvestable yield and quality potential (before shrink) to put on 547 pounds of beef per dry matter ton. This translates into 5,152 pounds per acre of beef gained.

"Not every high-yielding grain hybrid makes good silage," Ramsey explained. "There's a trend toward some corn breeders selecting for shorter-statured plants for high-yield grain hybrids because growers are asking for less residue when they plant the next crop."


As a general rule, a ton of silage is valued at eight to 10 times a bushel of corn. If corn sells for $4 per bushel, then silage is worth approximately $40 per ton. Based on this ratio, a 180-bushel-per-acre corn crop is worth approximately $1,000 per acre as silage.

Silage doesn't require a lot of expensive equipment to store and feed. Bach custom-harvests silage for two neighbors who store the feed in bunker silos. During the winter, they use front-end loaders to move it to feed bunks in lots and pastures.

One of the keys to making high-quality silage in a bunker silo is to pack the forage at a high level of density. The silage should be spread in layers no more than 6 inches thick, and tractors used to pack the silage should be able to keep up with the field harvest. Achieving a packing density of 15 pounds of dry matter per cubic foot is essential for making high-quality silage.