Cropping Manager Shares Successes and Challenges of Growing Silage

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Dave LaCrosse’s efforts as cropping manager at Pagel’s Ponderosa in Kewaunee, Wis., help feed the dairy operation’s 5,300-cow herd by growing corn, silage and wheat on the 7,800-acre farm. Haylage and corn silage are the two main feed ingredients, making up 60% of the ration.

The base silage program is 20 lb. per cow of dry matter corn silage and 11 lb. per cow of alfalfa hay, which is pure alfalfa. Pagel’s Ponderosa uses a silage inoculant to ensure rapid, efficient fermentation and increased dry matter retention, resulting in higher-quality silage.

Silage Challenges

The biggest challenge is, of course, the weather. The Kewaunee area gets about 32" of rainfall per year, but LaCrosse said it never comes at the same time. The struggle becomes getting alfalfa harvested amid wet, muddy field conditions without wrecking the crop, he said. His alfalfa harvest targets are 58% moisture and 150 to 180 relative feed value.

“It’s the same with corn in the fall; we’ve had tough times over the past five years with it being too wet and muddy to be able to get the crop off in a timely manner at the correct moisture,” he noted. “I try to target 68% moisture to capture a higher amount of starch, which is energy that’s in direct relation to the quality of the feed. However, sometimes when it’s muddy, you just can't get enough done in a day.”

Targeting moisture levels can also be a challenge, but LaCrosse has a chipper and uses a microwave to dry samples down to identify moisture levels.

“I know it’s going to get away from us, so I plan to start when we get down to 70,” he noted. “I like to start ahead and try to stay ahead of the game, so the corn crop doesn’t get too dry. When I know I’m really close, it’s also experience reading the plants and monitoring the milk line.”

“For corn, we’ve been doing a lot of research to try to get the highest digestible corn silage that we can put up,” LaCrosse said. “I’ve handpicked a couple varieties that are the top of the line in digestibility. That’s the approach I’ve been trying to stick with and I am watching trial data to find new products that might be better. My aim is to get a very high-end NDFD on our corn silage, plus continue our high starch numbers to get yield out of it.”

Packing Precision

LaCrosse’s custom harvester chops his alfalfa and corn and delivers it to the farm, and it’s the farm team’s responsibility to pack it correctly.

“Packing silage becomes the important job for the day, so it takes precedence over everything else,” he said. “For each bunker, you only have one chance to get it right, so it’s important that we are working as a team.”

Bunker walls are covered with plastic ahead of time, so the only place that silage is exposed to foreign material, other than plastic, is the floor, which is either blacktop or concrete. 

“We double tarp to cover everything tight, tight, tight, using two full layers of black-and-white plastic,” he explained. “One of our key goals is to not have seams on top of each other. We’re starting out with a small sheet, then the full sheet, and then our plastic is overlapped by half. We don’t have overlapping seams anywhere, so it really eliminates air getting in and spoilage.”

Best practices that he focuses on are “keeping enough iron on the pile” as more silage comes in. If the feed is drier, it’s important to keep more weight on it because the drier the feed, the harder it is to pack. If the moisture level is on target, it’s much easier to create a quality silage. It also helps to keep the silage pile tight. 

“There are a lot of little things that go into making a pile perfect,” he said.

Pagel’s Ponderosa typically keeps three months of carryover on haylage and corn silage.

“We’re never feeding fresh crop, so our piles need to be completely fermented in order to keep the cow’s rumen as balanced as possible,” he explained. “When changing from one crop to the next, we feed a blend of both the old crop and the new crop for a few weeks, so we don’t shock the cow’s system by changing over to a completely new silage.”

David Lacrosse
Dave LaCrosse, Cropping Manager at Pagel’s Ponderosa

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