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Silage quality and tonnage: Can a dairy producer have it all?

Phil Krueger Published on 19 September 2012
silage harvest

As a dairy producer, you may think it’s impossible to meet the nutritional needs of your herd with a high-quality corn silage without sacrificing tonnage.

But with the wide selection of silage hybrids that are designed for high digestibility and adapted to varying geographies and field conditions, it’s realistic to reach both nutritional goals and yield requirements.

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Picking a hybrid for silage

Selecting a hybrid developed specifically for corn silage production is the best way to meet both quality and tonnage objectives.

There was a time when producers thought the best grain corn hybrids also made the best corn silage. In fact, hybrids bred for grain production generally are not well-suited for silage production because they don’t offer the high neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFD) that is the hallmark of a good silage hybrid.

pd-fg_crossover Click here to read the related article appearing in the October 1, 2012 issue of Progressive Forage Grower.

Most commercial hybrids that are marketed as silage hybrids will provide adequate yields and starch levels. Selecting hybrids with a high NDFD will result in the best corn silage for the dairy herd. Note that there is no substitute for digestible fiber. There is nothing on the market that can be purchased or added to corn silage to increase NDFD.

Once you have identified a potential list of silage hybrids, look closely at the most digestible silage hybrids that also provide adequate yields. Always pick the highest NDFD hybrid that also will give you the tonnage you need.

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Understand hybrid choices

There are several different types of silage corn hybrids on the market. Educating yourself about the characteristics of each can help you make the best decision possible.

  1. Dual-purpose hybrids or grain hybrids harvested for silage: Some hybrids were bred for grain but provide good tonnage, so they are marketed for both grain and silage production. Dual-purpose hybrids are often tall and attractive hybrids but they have higher lignin content.

    Lignin is the indigestible part of the plant. High lignin content means a low NDFD, making the grain hybrids less digestible. Cows fed this type of corn silage will not maximize their production potential.

  2. Non-BMR silage hybrids:There are two classes on the market – leafy and non-leafy silage hybrids. Just because a hybrid is leafy does not mean it is a good silage hybrid. Assess both leafy and non-leafy hybrids by looking at the quality and agronomic characteristics to see if they can provide NDFD, proper starch levels and adequate yield.

    Some leafy hybrids can have lower starch values because they produce more leaves and they do not guarantee more tonnage. Look at multi-site and multi-year yield data in your area to determine if these silage hybrids are a fit for your operation.

  3. BMR silage hybrids: Brown midrib (BMR) corn hybrids are bred specifically for silage and offer the highest NDFD. Currently, there are two of the four known BMR gene mutations available in the marketplace.

Studies over many years have been conducted to determine the differences between the BMR gene mutations – and they show that the bm3 gene confers the highest NDFD. It is important to consult with your supplier as to which gene their BMR silage hybrids are using. Current BMRs also offer competitive yields in most environments but they work best in low-stress environments with high-water-holding-capacity soils or irrigated land.

Manage hybrids properly

Although the goal of any dairy operation is to produce the most milk in the most economical way, tonnage requirements cannot be ignored. Therefore, it is imperative to learn about both the quality and the agronomic characteristics of the hybrids you are considering for silage production.

As with grain corn, silage corn hybrids need to be the correct fit for the geography, soil type and climate. Often high-NDFD hybrids bred specifically for silage, like brown midrib (BMR) varieties, will yield as well as non-BMR hybrids when positioned correctly on a farm.

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Getting input from your local seed supplier is one of the best ways to educate yourself about which hybrids will have the best agronomics for your fields. Ask your seed supplier or agronomic adviser about recommended plant populations, fertility and moisture needs of the hybrids you are considering and match them to your field conditions.

Also realize that highly digestible corn silage requires careful ration management. Discuss feeding strategies with your nutritionist prior to planting. To ensure a smooth transition, introduce the new corn silage into the diet gradually and maintain adequate effective fiber to prevent digestive upsets.

It’s also a good practice to test silage after harvest and regularly monitor herd performance to see if any adjustments need to be made.

Set quality and yield goals

There are many factors to consider when selecting the appropriate hybrid for silage, so before making a purchasing decision, determine your nutritional needs and then set realistic goals for both forage quality and yield. Then select hybrids based on your goals, checking local yield and performance data before making a final purchase decision. PD

Phil Krueger
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