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Set goals to evaluate, improve forage-storing processes

Shawn P. Ryan Published on 06 April 2011

Complete evaluation of last year’s crop storage and management is a continual process and provides an opportunity to set goals for areas of improvement during the coming year. Crucial in today’s economy, storing and feeding high-quality forage helps protect profitability and the bottom line of the dairy operation.

Dairy producers and forage managers do not have control over all variables that affect harvesting, but they do have control over additional inputs of their operation’s forage management program.

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Assessing silage quality and cost of current methods goes beyond just sampling and checking for dry matter losses, and producers should take time to evaluate the costs of each step of the process and balance it against the return of benefits reflected in feeding quality forage to their herd.

Setting goals for next year allows producers to spot problem areas of crop quality and integrate solutions.

For Paul Natzke, owner and feed manager of Wayside Dairy LLC near Wayside, Wisconsin, constant evaluation of the operation’s crop storage system has been instrumental in making yearly adjustments to the way he manages forage. Evaluation also provides a starting point for measuring the success or failure of reaching set goals.

Wayside Dairy LLC is home to a herd of 1,425 milking and 200 dry cows and consists of a partnership between Natzke and his uncle and cousin. Natzke manages the feed procurement operation, which consists of 2,700 acres of corn, alfalfa and wheat.

He also manages and supervises the harvesting and storage of corn silage and alfalfa haylage in the 10 open-faced bunkers currently used at the dairy.

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Explore covering options

During feedout one year, Natzke noticed a six-inch to eight-inch layer of surface spoilage in one of his 10 bunkers and was puzzled by the cause. He enlisted the assistance of Keith Bolsen, professor emeritus and silage expert at Kansas State University, who suggested improvements to packing procedures in addition to covering bunkers with an oxygen-blocking clear plastic film under the outer tarp.

The following year the added layer of oxygen barrier protection and adjustments to packing solved the surface spoilage issue.

Natzke also takes a preventative approach when covering silage to keep spoilage to a minimum and the operation’s return on investment at its peak. Within an hour after the last load is packed, the bunkers are quickly covered with the two-layer system of a clear oxygen-blocking film and an outer tarp.

To minimize wasted materials and excess labor, Wayside Dairy covers the bunkers across the width of the bunker versus the entire length. Using this approach minimizes labor resources needed to keep the covering straight. For Wayside Dairy, it also reduces wasted covering materials, a cost that adds up quickly.

The dimensions and size of the clear oxygen-blocking film and tarp differ, providing uneven seams for a more effective seal and increased oxygen barrier protection. Flush seams provide a weak point for oxygen to enter and spoil the top layer of forage; overlap of at least four to six feet is recommended between sheets.

Natzke completes the covering process by sealing the wall edges with gravel bags and placing tires to keep the covering tightly secured and in direct contact with the silage surface.

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Consider forage inoculants

Hybrid or variety choice, harvest moisture, weather, packing and sealing are all variables of the crop storage process and inputs that affect the end result. As with any part of the process, setting a goal to select quality tools that will do the best job is essential to the success of the overall forage program.

One tool a dairy producer should consider when evaluating and setting goals is the use of forage inoculants. Some producers use inoculants every season, others choose to use it when they believe it will be most beneficial – there is no magic formula.

Natzke uses an inoculant as a risk management tool, and has found that using a quality and trusted product is worth the added cost and provides him peace of mind. Every year, a water-soluble inoculant is applied at the forage chopper to help lower silage pH and act as a catalyst for fermentation.

Incorporating an inoculant into the overall forage quality goal helps Wayside Dairy achieve the operation’s overall goal of storing quality forage and providing high-quality rations to the dairy herd.

Evaluate cost of current methods

Feeding quality forage to the dairy herd starts with keeping oxygen out during storage. Surface spoilage results in depressed dry matter intake, damage to the rumen and robs cows of essential nutrients needed for milk production.

According to a Kansas State University research study, feeding a dairy herd surface-spoiled corn silage costs dairy producers anywhere from $15 to $140 less in milk production per cow per year. Better herd health can be expected when forage is properly protected from oxygen and spoilage.

Good immune function in a dairy herd begins with energy, protein, minerals and vitamins – all of which degrade when the storing process exposes silage to oxygen. With current high costs of feedstuffs, protecting forage quality is an investment that dairy producers can see, right to the bottom line. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request to .

Shawn P. Ryan
  • Shawn P. Ryan

  • Dairy Forage Specialist - North America
  • Silostop
  • Email Shawn P. Ryan

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