Pick Up on Earlage

Sustainability and practicality have more beef producers considering this feeding alternative.

Eric Christensen (Progressive Farmer image by Joel Reichenberger)

Sometimes, the old ways are the best. That's how Eric Christensen feels about earlage in cattle rations. He's following his grandfather's practice of using the ensiled corn product here on the family's eastern-Colorado operation, Christensen Ranch.

Established by Edward R. Christensen in 1923, this ranch started incorporating earlage into its feeding program during the 1940s. It allowed for early harvest and offered the option of using just the grain and cobs, or adding corn stalks and husks to a ration. It tended to be higher in energy (starch) than corn silage, a plus during the cold winters here.

Eric and his ranch partner cousin, Kathy Wood, say what worked then is still a good practice now. It's an especially important element in the sustainability of their beef operation.

"As members of Global Animal Partnership, we focus on animal welfare from pasture to plate, raising cattle without hormone implants or antibiotics," Christensen says. "We pasture-raise cattle until they're ready to finish then put them on a ration that includes earlage. We want to put fat in the marbling of our cattle where it improves meat quality and flavor."

The farm's first earlage tool was a hammer mill. This is a mill with the purpose of shredding or crushing material through grinding or repeated blows from little hammers mounted in a steel drum. Christensen's father picked corn he wanted to use as earlage by hand, stored it in a bin then crushed it in the hammer mill rather than shelling it. Today, Christensen uses a kernel processor on a forage harvester, equipped with shearing action to crack close to 100% of kernels and chop cobs and husks at the same time.

"We harvest at about 36 to 38% moisture," Christensen says. "It keeps better in the bunker at that moisture level."

Earlage is covered with plastic as soon as possible after harvest. He says with quick-drying genetics, the biggest challenge they face is harvesting the corn once it's mature but before it dries down too much. They use a variety of corn that can be harvested either as earlage or silage, giving them an option in this area where hail can be common.

PUTTING ON A FINISH

"When we bring cattle into the feedyard to finish, we start with a small percentage of earlage in the ration and slowly increase that over a four-week period," Christensen says.

"Earlage is very palatable, and it tends to help new feeder cattle quickly get their head in the bunk. At the end of their finishing period, the ration is between 80 and 85% earlage."

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Since getting hay up while it's dry is also very challenging here, Christensen says he typically harvests haylage to use in the feed ration. He'll add some dry hay, as needed. Cattle aren't pushed to finish within a specific time frame. He believes allowing them to fatten at an average daily gain of 3 pounds results in a higher grade at the packer.

Greg Lardy, longtime head of North Dakota State University's department of animal sciences, notes earlage is generally higher in energy than corn silage, with similar protein content. But, it has lower energy than dry or high-moisture corn grain.

"Earlage works well in a variety of cattle diets, including growing and finishing diets for beef cattle and feed for lactating dairy cows," he says. "It may also be referred to as snaplage, high-moisture ear corn, or corn and cob meal."

EARLAGE PROS AND CONS

Advantages of earlage check a lot of boxes, from economic to ease of use to feeding efficiency.

To begin, Lardy notes the obvious: The practice eliminates drying costs. It can also increase dry-matter yield by 20% compared with conventional corn harvest.

On the management side, earlage lengthens harvest windows, giving producers the option of using longer-season corn varieties. These can potentially produce 3 to 5 bushels per acre for every day of relative maturity.

When it comes to feeding, Lardy agrees with Christensen that earlage is highly palatable and mixes well with other forages and feeds. Cattle tend to feed more consistently when earlage is an option, partly because of the digestible fiber in the cob and husk. And, don't overlook the positive effect of the cobs' "scratch factor" in the rumen.

Harvest residue from earlage can often even extend fall grazing windows. The residue is lower in volume and nutritional quality, however, a fact that should be accounted for. Once cattle are off the fields, residue from the crop reduces potential for erosion. If there is a downside to earlage, it would be a limited market. This is only used as a feed for ruminants. No other markets are available.

When earlage is harvested late, cobs are low in digestibility. This reduces energy content in the ration relative to dry grain. And, earlage is typically lower in protein than other corn grain products.

Proper ensiling is critical, because without it, earlage losses from spoilage and shrink can be excessive.

"Earlage ensiling is basically the same as silage," Lardy explains. "You need to exclude oxygen and pack it just as you would silage. It must be covered as soon as possible with plastic to prevent oxygen penetration, and the plastic must be tightly sealed and secured to maintain the seal."

Inoculants may be a valuable addition to earlage during harvest and ensiling. Custom-chopping operations often have the equipment necessary for producing good-quality earlage. In addition to a kernel processor, an all-crop header can be used to take the upper third of the corn stalk along with all the ears. This method produces more overall tonnage, but the energy and protein content of the feed will usually be lower.

FLAVOR BOOSTS

Christensen Ranch produces beef for Meyer Natural Angus Beef, a company focused on its commitment to offer customers what it describes as "consistent renowned taste and tenderness."

"We started selling some of our beef directly to customers," Christensen says. Those early buyers told him the flavor was superior to what they found elsewhere. He has no scientific proof that earlage plays a role, but he does know a feeding program affects taste and quality.

"It's possible that this fermented feed (earlage) adds some flavor to the beef. It's also possible that our practice of aging meat the old-fashioned way, hanging it for two weeks, concentrates some of the flavor," he continues.

With no reason to start taking chances by changing up a winning recipe, Christensen says they will continue to use earlage as part of their overall program. The positives, for this rancher, far outweigh the challenges of the practice.

"We have greater flexibility at harvest, and we handle the harvest less. We need less harvest equipment, and that requires fewer man-hours per bushel. We don't have to wait for the dew to evaporate in the morning, so we can start at 6 in the morning and finish by 4:30. That leaves more time for family. It just all works together."

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

> Christensen Ranch: www.christensenranch.com

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