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Quality corn silage starts now

Amy Schutte for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 August 2018
Packing the silage

Corn silage harvest is arguably the most critical time of the year for a dairy’s future productivity and profitability. In a period of a few weeks, nine to 14 months of feed inventory is created.

Getting it right is critical to desirable feed quality for a long period of time.

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Managing expectations early and creating good relationships with the key players involved in the harvest will help carry your herd through the following year; however, waiting until August to start your harvest plans can result in a significant loss of money, time and return.

Make a plan

Discussing your corn silage should begin even before your corn is planted. Consult your corn seed salesperson early to know which hybrids are performing well in your particular region.

“Knowing how many tons of feed you’ll need to feed your herd and how many acres you’ll need to plant is the first conversation to have. Producers also need to understand the day-length maturity of the corn they are planting and know what moisture and maturity level they should be targeting for harvest,” says Jon Botch, an Idaho-based consultant assistant with Standard Dairy Consultants (SDC), a nutrition and management consulting company who provides assistants to help the company’s nutritionists with another set of eyes on their clients’ dairies in the form of data collection, analysis of feedstuffs and mineral inventory.

Botch encourages producers to start planning for the next year’s harvest in the early winter months after their most recent harvest is finished. Staggering the planting schedule can help prevent the corn from being ready to harvest all at the same time.

Knowing what you want out of your corn silage starts with getting on the same page as your nutritionist. If you use a custom harvester, loop them into the conversation with your nutritionist in the early stages.

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In the months prior to September, evaluate your storage pits or bunkers and determine your strategy for clearing enough space for your upcoming silage harvest. Equipment is a key component during the harvest; if you own your own equipment, check the rollers and knives before and during harvest. Loose bolts or worn equipment can result in an unacceptable chop length.

Kernel processing and the theoretical length of chop are essential to proper rumination and energy. Checking equipment at the beginning of each day during harvest can save time and expense later on. The extra time focused on equipment means a well-processed, high-quality corn silage that improves your herd’s milk production and, ultimately, your profitability.

Align expectations

During the harvest season, consultants and consultant assistants facilitate communication and give producers a high level of service and attention during one of the most critical times of the year. Delegating someone you trust to monitor the corn silage or haylage harvest can help achieve the best results for your feeding goals.

“Ideally, we’d make sure everyone is on the same page in the spring. It’s best if the farmer and custom harvester can work together to make sure the corn is staggered to harvest at the right time. Many dairymen don’t own their own equipment and are waiting for a third party to harvest their corn, so it’s a race to get on the calendar,” says Steve Mayo, an Idaho-based consultant assistant.

Mayo says starting the communication process early allows for optimum results and the ability for the harvester and farmer to make sure the silage aligns with animals’ needs. Preferred chop lengths will depend on the type of processor on the chopper and the moisture of the crop.

Knowing what will work best for your dairy and communicating your needs with the harvester will make everything run more smoothly.

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Start with a good team

Whether you are harvesting your own crop or hiring a custom harvester, make sure your nutritionist and a consultant assistant, if you are working with one, are involved in the process. An additional pair of eyes on the incoming loads can help troubleshoot and resolve issues quickly.

Consultant assistant Josh Sanders helps farmers start the communication process early by implementing a short training session with the scale house operators or the farmer on what to look for in the silage.

“There’s a lot that goes into corn silage. Every step to making corn silage is important and it can easily go wrong and affect you for the entire upcoming year,” he says. “You’ll spend all year growing it and a few weeks in harvest. If you don’t get it right, it can have a long-lasting impact on your bottom line.”

Sanders recommends training your team early to understand what to look for in the harvest loads. He suggests using the Corn Silage Processing Monitoring Cup technique to analyze the chopped forage.

Using a 32-ounce cup, collect a sample and check the kernel processing for whole kernels. If more than two whole or half kernels appear in the sample, check your equipment immediately for loose bolts, worn rollers or out-of-adjustment processors.

A shaker box and a trained eye can catch other issues during harvest season, but Sanders says the monitoring cup technique is easy to use for scale house operators and equipment operators in the event a consultant assistant or farmer can’t be on-site.

Starting a group text with the major players helps aid in clear communication throughout the harvest. While the goal may differ from the chopper operator to the nutritionist, early communication can keep tensions in check and allow the team to understand where to focus their energy if problems arise.

Be present

While a dairy farmer has many things to do on a daily basis, experts advise creating room in your schedule to show up during harvest.

“When harvest starts, I am checking the process from the beginning,” Mayo says. “I ask the chopper driver to pull up 2 feet into the field, and I check the sample and make adjustments. You can tell immediately if they need to tighten down rolls or lengthen the chop. It’s a fairly lengthy process at the beginning, but we’re putting up a year’s worth of feed in a week, and we need to make sure it’s the best product possible.”

Being present at the beginning of harvest and communicating expectations to everyone involved can help alleviate misunderstandings as the week continues. It’s also imperative to keep an eye on the pack tractors as the silage is being brought in, since the pack is as important as the harvest process.

“You need to know how fast the wagons are coming in and how many tractors are packing the silage,” says Stacy Schwoerer, Wisconsin consultant assistant. “Packing and covering your silage is a key step in the harvest. If it’s not put up correctly, it can create issues later.”

Knowing not only how many tractors need to be on-site but also making sure they are the right tractors and weight to pack the silage is important during the busy harvest days.

Evaluate

After harvest is over and the silage is stored, Sanders makes sure he has thorough notes on the process and the sample data from the harvest and packed piles. Throughout the year, he refers to the notes as a dairy goes through their silage, allowing a look back at the harvest and the weather issues encountered.

Notes and photos from the previous year’s corn silage harvest help facilitate the spring conversations and can act as talking points to work through challenges and opportunities for the coming year.

“Plan everything out so you aren’t surprised by the harvest in September,” Schwoerer says. “Corn silage is one of the best buys for feeding your herd; if it’s poor, you’ll have decreased energy in your herd, which will impact your bottom line.”  end mark

PHOTO: Packing silage. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Amy Schutte is a freelance writer based in southern Idaho. Email Amy Schutte.

Harvest planning by season

  • Spring: Plant your corn so it matures at different times. Start communicating with your key players, especially your nutritionist and harvesting team.

  • Summer: Delegate responsibilities and train scale house operators on what they should be looking for at harvest time. Prepare bunkers or pits for new silage. Get on the custom harvester’s schedule for harvest.

  • Fall: Take time to check in during harvest and monitor chop length and kernel processing. Assess the pack tractors and take samples of the silage.

  • Winter: Evaluate your harvest season and the challenges and opportunities your team faced. Take samples from the face of newly opened silage pit and start discussions with seed salesmen to prepare for spring planting.

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