Silage Feeding Options – Working with This Year’s Stored Feeds

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The 2018 silage growing season was setting up to be outstanding, yet unmatched rainfall events through many forage growing regions from mid-August into mid-September right through when dairies and feedlots needed to chop silage shattered those plans.

“We already had a crop that was a little bit ahead of schedule, then we had rain come in and delay harvest,” said Dr. John Goeser, animal nutrition and research innovation director at Rock River Laboratory Inc. with agricultural testing facilities in Wisconsin, California, Ohio and New York, and supporting services in Idaho, Michigan, Pennsylvania and South Dakota. “Further compounding the issue, in northern Illinois, southeast Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, southern and eastern Wisconsin, Michigan and northern Indiana, we had a new plant disease called tar spot, which is not a mycotoxin producer, but it will actively kill off plants, leaving them open to subsequent fungal deterioration, ear rot and stalk rot.”

As a result, many dairy and feedyard growers have silos and bunkers of corn silage that are lower in fiber digestibility, and fiber quality is not as high because of the earlier growing season last year. Goeser said Rock River Laboratory data indicates starch quality and starch availability appear marginal.

“We do a lot of starch digestibility assessments by way of our routine forage analysis and NIR, so I watch the trend change over time,” he said.

Last year, for reference, during August to September, starch digestibility for corn silage dropped considerably, which is indicative of new crop coming into the ration. Fermentation is one of the big factors that leads to improved rumen starch digestibility and total starch digestibility. Goeser then watches to see over time how fast the collective crop improves in rumen starch digestibility. Last year, he saw a rapid ascension to adequate levels – in a matter of two to three months.

“This equates to when silage will feed to its full potential, and typically, two to three months is a minimum, up to six months,” he said. “However, this year we are a good five months on with this crop fermenting and it still has not reached full potential, and I don’t know that it’s even close. I’ve seen a much slower improvement in starch digestibility, which indicates again a more mature crop, harder grain, also less dense, less packed and fermentation that wasn’t as sound as previous years.”

Corn Silage Quality Issues

With a more mature crop, there’s less potential per pound of fiber and starch because the digestibility through dairy and feedyards will likely be lower. Wild yeast levels are another concern. The heavy rains and extra-cellular moisture can also stimulate microbial growth, creating a heavy yeast-laden crop. 

“There are mycotoxins present in a lot of silos that came off of last year’s field, produced by fusarium-type mold, but that may have been overblown as a concern by some,” Goeser noted. “I’m most concerned about the corn silage dry matter and possibility of yeast level.”

Start with a Forage Analysis

When it comes to feeding this year’s silage, Goeser said the first step is to conduct a forage analysis test to understand where the problems are. Some growers scoff at the cost to do feed and forage tests and microbial, mold and yeast tests, but the information is needed to make educated decisions.

“I want to know the fiber quality, starch levels and anti-nutritional factors we are dealing with. It may not be pretty, but it doesn’t mean we need to panic or that the sky is falling. We just may need to do some things a little bit differently,” he noted. “For me, it starts with understanding what is in front of us and then putting a nutrition prescription together or a charted plan for how we are going to manage the feedstuffs we have on hand.”

Milk Prices Force Economic Sustainability

Low milk prices are a pain point that no one wants to talk about, except Goeser.

“I’m optimistic and excited about where the dairy industry will be in a year’s time and in five years’ time because low milk prices are forcing us to get better at our craft through economic sustainability,” he explained. “I’ve found that there are massive inefficiencies on-farm. That’s much of what I deal with at Rock River: positioning different feed and forage analysis tools with nutritionists, dairies, feedlots or key industry influencers that can identify and address these on-farm inefficiencies.”

Goeser said we may be seeing a new normal with what producers are getting paid for their product. Despite the low milk prices, some dairies are still improving their equity and expanding their business while others are being forced to close. 

“If there are some dairies out there that can grow and expand in this economic climate, then it tells me there’s opportunity for many other dairies to get better at their craft, and long-term they will be positioned to be incredibly successful,” he concluded.

John Goeser
John Goeser, Ph.D., PAS & Diplomate ACAN, Rock River Laboratory Inc.


Headline image courtesy of Rock River Laboratory Inc.


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