Researchers at the University of Nebraska are reconsidering how to best utilize corn silage in beef production systems. There are times, like now – in 2019 – when hay can be very expensive, whether it’s per unit of energy or per unit of protein. However, corn silage has been competitively priced for several years and has traditionally been used as a roughage source at low inclusion rates of 7% to 15% of the diet.
“We see an opportunity with corn silage for some of our farmer feeders, meaning they own their own cattle and the land that’s producing the feed that’s primarily fed to those cattle,” said Galen Erickson, animal science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We’ve been studying combining silage with distiller grains and feeding two to three times the amount of silage compared to feeding the typical low-inclusion rate.”
Recently summarized data from five experiments includes 58 pen replications and a pooled analysis of the data. The data indicates that the cattle eat about the same amount, but they gain less weight per day. Gains averaged about 3.9 lbs. per day across the five studies with feeding a traditional amount of 15% silage, whereas average daily gain went down to 3.7 lbs. if silage increased in the diet to 45%. So, gains decrease on a daily basis when increasing the fed-silage roughage content.
The conversion rate across the pooled analysis, when fed 15% silage, was 6.3 lbs. of feed per lb. of gain, and the cattle fed three times the amount of silage or 45% silage in the diet on a dry-matter basis had a conversion rate of 6.7.
“Most producers haven’t adopted this practice because they think that gains got worse and the conversions got worse, so why would we do that? But our data would suggest that if you price silage correctly, you make about $25 to $40 more per finished head,” explained Erickson. “Even though gains and conversions were lower, the silage is priced so much cheaper than the corn that it is still economical. If you can tolerate some loss of average daily gain and conversion rate, which many farmer feeder operations are happy to do if they know it’s making them more money for their operation, then it’s been a good deal.”
Pricing Silage Correctly
When we price silage, it’s important to use the correct corn price. The cheapest time of the year for corn is at harvest, and the price of corn increases about 5¢ per bushel per month from the month of October until the following July to account for the cost of storage, he said.
“What many people have done is use the January or February corn price, which included the price of storage, and then added a corn silage storage price on top of it. That’s a mistake – you shouldn’t have to pay the storage cost twice,” Erickson said. “Every producer should be able to price their silage relative to corn that’s standing in the field. So, include the price of corn minus the cost of combining minus the cost of hauling it to market and then any drying costs.”
“If you don’t put up silage well, then don’t put up silage because it won’t be economical,” advised Erickson. “If your shrink is more than 10% to 15% of the dry matter being lost, then you’re not doing a good enough job and should evaluate your management practices.”
All the factors that go into chopping, packing to the correct density – 16 lbs. of dry matter per foot,3 preserving the forage with an inoculant if the conditions call for it and covering silage bunkers as quickly as possible – can help manage and prevent shrink losses, he said. This includes how you feed the pile back to the herd – usually 3" to 6" per day off the entire phase.
“I think producers can easily put up silage by following the right steps and keep their shrink below 15%,” he concluded. “If you manage all these things, then you’re managing shrink well and corn silage can be your most economical feed. Alternatives to silage, such as hay, shrink too, and you either pay for it by paying more after the shrink has occurred or you pay less but incur the shrink on hay as well.”
Headline image courtesy of Dr. Galen Erickson