With the number of row-crop acres growing and the number of forage acres shrinking, Midwestern beef producers are responding
with more use of corn silage.
It’s not a new concept. Corn silage has been an important component of cattle-feeding programs dating back to the 1880s, says Jason Warner, nutritionist with Nebraska-based Great Plains Consulting Inc. However, with more acres today planted in corn and less left to alfalfa or native grasses, the feeding industry has had to adjust.
Warner notes a survey of consulting feedlot nutritionists in 2007, found 31% of respondents used alfalfa hay as their primary or secondary forage source. The same survey, completed in 2016, showed only 20.8% of nutritionists using alfalfa as their forage.
“The land-use shift from hay and pasture towards crops is very real, and is contributing to the increased use of crop residues,” Warner says. He adds the use of silage offers a benefit for many cattle operations, particularly those who own or rent ground.
Midwestern Trend. The shifts Warner has seen are not unique to Nebraska. Iowa State University recently completed its own survey of producers utilizing corn silage.
Looking at some specifics of that use and preparation, Dan Loy, Iowa State University feedlot specialist and director of the Iowa Beef Center, says the average number of silage acres harvested in the state is 129 acres. Reported yields range from 20 to 31 tons per acre.
Other details show silage moisture levels averaged 63%, 60% of producers used custom harvesters, 58% used inoculants and 72% utilized kernel processing. As for storage, 37% of Iowans responding to the survey had a bunker storage facility; 32% used silage bags. Eighteen percent had drive-over piles, and 13% stored silage in upright silos. At the end of the day, Loy notes, “the survey showed Iowa producers are adapting to new technologies in the harvesting of silage.”
Pros And Cons. The largest advantage in utilizing silage is having a high-quality feed stored in inventory, stresses Nebraska’s Warner. Another advantage is seen in having the ability to utilize the corn crop even if drought has damaged its ability to make grain. Silage is a good energy source and works well in rations with dry feeds as well as wet ethanol byproducts.
Corn silage is a viable option in finishing rations, as it provides both a good source of energy and roughage, says Allen Stateler, nutritionist for Nutrition Services Associates based in northeast Nebraska. Finishing diets are formulated to provide rapid, efficient, cost-effective growth to achieve a desired end-weight and carcass composition. Silage fits the bill, says Stateler, adding that when it is cut has a large effect on nutritional levels.
More mature corn plants, with higher starch content, will yield more energy per acre. But the crop will be harder to properly pack and ensile due to lower moisture, Stateler stresses. Corn silage is easiest to pack and ensile when the dry matter of the whole plant is in the 32% to 38% range. However, the weight of the grains, cob and husk is not maximized until the whole plant reaches somewhere in the 45% to 55% dry matter range, he says.
“In a perfect world, we would have kernels that are mature to black layer while the plant dry matter remains at or below 40%,” Stateler explains.
Galen Erickson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of animal science, has conducted numerous experiments over the past seven years evaluating different amounts of silage in finishing cattle rations. In five studies, he compared feeding 15% inclusion of silage in a ration, to 45% inclusion. This was in finishing cattle. Average daily gain (ADG) decreased by 5.2% by increasing silage levels, he says.
In other studies, yearling calves fed 45% silage tended to eat more with less impact on ADG. In most studies, cattle were fed on the same days, which resulted in slightly lower marbling scores and fatness.
“Despite being economical, no producers have adopted this practice of elevating silage inclusion (in a finishing ration),” Erickson says. He notes many feedyards are open to the use of silage for a defined period of time. Some will use silage to grow calves for a 40 to 70 day period, before stepping them down on silage and increasing the amount of grain being fed. A silage growing program, he adds, normally contain 70% silage or more.
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