Growing silage corn needs some advanced planning and can involve a change of mindset for producers who are used to doing everything themselves.
“Corn is different from most silage products that can be made in Western Canada,” says Ray Bittner, livestock specialist with Manitoba Agriculture. “Corn needs to be chopped or combined, but haybines knock cobs off and swathers create swathes that are too large to handle. Corn is never dry enough for baling like hay, and if you try to ensile in round bale silage it’s very difficult to control sharp stalks from penetrating the silage wrap. Producers need a forage harvester or a combine to salvage the crop if it’s too dry.”
For many smaller livestock producers it’s simply not feasible to invest in the equipment to plant and harvest silage corn, so they have to make sure they have custom planters and silage operators lined up, often a year in advance.
Corn silage advantages may outweigh the costs
There are a few other challenges with growing corn silage. Seed and fertilizer costs are high, timing of seeding can be an issue, as can spraying and the cost of chopping and ensiling. There may also be an additional feeding cost. “Gone is the ability to pick up five-days worth of hay bales and throw them in a feeding area,” says Bittner. “Most operations need new feeding equipment, and regularly scheduled feed deliveries to the cattle.”
That said, for a growing number of producers, the advantages of corn silage outweigh the costs. Chris Lea, who operates a 70-head cow/calf operation near Manitou, Man., says he’s producing more tonnage of feed on 40 acres of corn than he used to on 120 acres of hay land.
“It’s also the reduced workload,” he says. “Haying was very labour intensive. It’s a high energy feed, and the cattle look better, they are shinier and healthier, and they do very well on corn silage.”
Lea says to grow silage corn costs around $125 an acre in fertilizer, $100 an acre for seed and $108 an acre to have a custom operator come in and chop, haul and pack the silage. With the extra tonnage he produces, the high nutritional feed value and the labour savings, corn silage still pencils out for Lea, who began growing silage corn four years ago.
For 40 acres it’s simply not feasible, says Lea, to invest in a forage harvester and trucks — close to a $2 million investment — to put up the silage himself, but he is planning to purchase a corn planter in the next couple of years.
Corn planter a good investment?
“We were getting it custom planted, although this year we tried our own drill. But when corn plants touch each other they don’t produce as big a cob, and with the corn planter they are exactly spaced and that’s ideal,” says Lea. “A good, used corn planter is probably about $30,000. That’s a good investment because it also allows us to get the corn planted when we need to, as there’s usually only a short window of time to get it done.”
The corn planter is an essential piece of equipment for any corn grower, says Nicole Rasmussen, DuPont Pioneer’s area agronomist for Alberta and British Columbia. “If producers are going to do corn silage, a planter is very important,” she says. “It’s also important because producers want the corn to all mature at the same time. They don’t want some plants to be ready and others not because they were planted too deep, which affected their emergence. A planter is important for achieving the best yield and an even stand for harvesting purposes.”
Because of the cost of the equipment, custom silage operators need to try and spread the cost over as many acres as they can, so as a consequence they are heavily booked. It’s vitally important to book them well ahead of time or you may end up last in line.
“Producers should make sure they put themselves in the best position to get that crop harvested at the right time and in the best condition possible,” says Rasmussen. “Producers should pay a lot of attention to the crop so that they can work with their custom person to get it in the pit in an optimal harvest window. They don’t want to be looking for someone to chop their corn when it’s ready to go. They need to set themselves up for seeding, spraying and harvest and put it up in good condition whether it’s in a bag or a pit.”
Chop at the right moisture content
The ideal moisture content to harvest and ensile corn is around 60 to 70 per cent. Corn that has a higher moisture content — because it is harvested too green — will result in poor quality feed. Fermentation in this wet silage can produce bacteria, which convert sugar and organic acids into butyric acid, carbon dioxide and ammonia. That results in a foul-smelling feed, with high pH, that is unpalatable and reduces intake.
Corn chopped too dry (at 55 per cent moisture or less) may not be able to pack well enough which can cause heating, reduced fermentation and spoilage.
“Producers who invest in their own chopping equipment do have up-front costs that are significant, but achieving the ideal chopping date over a few crops will pay dividends on their investment,” says Bittner.
Being prepared to control weeds is another consideration. Most corn is Roundup Ready but canola volunteers and some harder to control weeds may require a tank mix, and in some areas where corn isn’t a big crop, those options may not be as readily available. “Producers should speak with their agricultural retailer to make sure they have the proper, safe chemistry in stock so they can spray their fields when the time comes,” says Rasmussen. “Corn doesn’t like early competition so keeping on top of weeds early is critical.”
Corn doesn’t like wet feet, says Bittner. “For corn it’s important to have land which doesn’t pool water during the early growing season.”
Well-suited to beef and dairy operations
“Corn has always been well suited to beef and dairy rations, whether corn silage or corn grain,” says Bittner. “The high energy content of corn is important in Western Canada because in our cold winters animals require high energy over long periods of time.”
Corn silage contains more energy per ton than barley or hay. The energy content TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients) per ton of corn silage averages 66.4 per cent, compared to 65.5 per cent for barley silage and 60.4 per cent for alfalfa/grass silage.
“Corn is an easy to balance ration once you are familiar with its traits, but can be a minefield if you treat it the same as hay,” says Bittner. “Corn is high energy, high starch, low calcium and low protein by western Canadian standards. So all corn rations need a partnering feed, alfalfa is a preferred option, but many exist. For exact rations, a nutritionist should work with farm specific feed tests and work out the best options from a nutrition and cost of production perspective.”
Lea says that growing corn silage has helped him to stay in the cattle business. “Because of the reduced work load in the summer without haying and better animal performance,” he says.