Drought-Damaged Corn as Feed

Three Caution Flags If You're Feeding Cattle Drought-Damaged Corn

In some areas, corn is already to the point where producers are looking to use those fields for cattle feed. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo by Rick Mooney)

In some areas, drought-stressed corn is already being eyed for cattle feed, helping to offset expensive and limited hay supplies. But cattle producers need to know what they're getting into when they make the decision to turn those stalks into feed.

University of Missouri livestock specialist Gene Schmitz wrote that he is already seeing producers in his state make the switch. He said there are three things they need to consider first, however.


Make sure you check with your crop insurance agent before cutting those stalks for feed or even grazing them. Ray Massey, Extension agricultural economist with the University of Missouri, said final planting dates for both corn and soybeans are gone, leaving producers who planted and have poor stands insured and obligated to care for the crop to maximize yield. But, clearly, there is a profit turning point to consider, and that's where Massey said producers will want to get approval from their crop insurance agent before making any decision that deviates from a good farming practice. He stressed getting approval of your plan from the insurance provider in writing. Whether it's chopping for silage or grazing, if you do it without your agent's consent, you may nullify any crop insurance payment.


If silage is your plan, pencil out today's high cost of fertilizers and consider that corn silage removes more nutrients from the soil than any other crop or forage harvest practice, according to University of Missouri agronomist Tim Schnakenberg. "This can impact nutrient levels in those fields for future years. Be sure to keep track of nutrient levels with routine soil testing," he stressed.


Schmitz noted there are essentially four ways producers can harvest a failed cornfield: by baling, by silage, by green chop, or by grazing. When corn is droughty, it's important to consider the risks of each method for livestock health.

Nitrates can be very dangerous for cattle, with a host of adverse health effects. A "safe" dietary level of nitrate concentration is less than 0.25% (2,500 parts per million). But in drought conditions, that level can be hard to meet, and producers may have no choice other than to feed cattle nitrate concentrations at the higher end of the "caution" range, which is between 0.25% and 0.50% (5,000 ppm). In those cases, veterinary toxicologist Tim Evans said, producers should consult with Extension personnel and their herd veterinarian to discuss supplementation with grain or other lower-nitrate forages to dilute nitrates. Also, be aware that some weeds in fields, if green chopped, can elevate nitrate levels.

BALING. Avoid baling corn for dry hay when it is too wet. The ideal moisture level is 14% to 18%. Too wet, and the hay will mold, and can even combust. Mowing the corn with a crimper can break stems and help it dry faster.

SILAGE. If silage is the goal, the ideal moisture for chopped silage is 65%, wrote Schmitz. If silage is too wet, it can spoil, and if it's too dry, it's hard to pack. Be sure to cover silage with plastic as soon as possible and inspect the bags for holes. The goal is to keep oxygen out. Feed silage only after it has fermented for at least three weeks, reducing nitrate levels. It's important to test silage for quantitative nitrate concentrations and nutrient content after fermentation is complete.

GREEN-CHOP. Using green chop to feed drought-stressed corn means cutting and feeding two to three times a day. Don't leave piles of green chop overnight because this greatly increases the risk of nitrates turning into nitrites, which will poison cattle. If possible, test quantitative nitrate concentrations before feeding, and gradually increase the amount fed.

GRAZING. When grazing cattle in drought-hit cornfields, use temporary fencing to restrict access. The goal is to avoid unlimited access for a herd of hungry cows. Feed cattle good hay first, then strip graze, increasing access gradually. Avoid letting cattle eat the lower portion of the stalks, where more nitrates are contained.

For more help dealing with drought and feeding issues, go here: https://mizzou.us/….