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Is time to reconsider corn silage?

June 15th, 2011

It has been projected that on September 1 of this year there will be only 2-3 weeks of corn supply remaining. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to suggest that this is cutting it a little short. Depending on growing conditions of the crop that is now in the ground, prices of the existing crop could be quite volatile as we go through the growing season. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could jump the gun and feed the 2011 corn crop early? Well, actually you can. One option is to harvest the feed that built the Iowa cattle feeding industry. Maybe this is the year to reconsider corn silage.

Corn silage was the king of cattle feeds when Iowa dominated cattle feeding in the late 1970’s. Most cattle feeders fed it. Farms and feeding operations were smaller and corn silage maximized beef production per acre. The predominant ration of the time was corn silage, 1% of the animal’s bodyweight in corn and a protein supplement. This would allow a typical steer to gain 2.5 pounds per day with feed conversions of 8-9 pounds of dry matter per pound of gain. The system allows one turn of high quality beef to be fed each year.

Interest costs and better efficiencies in competitive feeding regions encouraged the cattle feeders in the 80’s to feed higher energy rations and turn them more quickly. Many feeders converted silage storage structures to earlage or high moisture corn. More recently, many of these structures have been used primarily as temporary flat storage for commodities. Nonetheless, for many feedlots, excess silage storage exists on their operations. For others, temporary storage methods exist.

I’m not suggesting that feeders go back to the rations of the 1970’s. However, silage can replace some or all of the roughage component of the ration and a significant portion of the corn in many diets. Corn silage is approximately 50% corn and 50% forage. Adding 20 to 40 % corn silage provides 10-20% roughage, and 10-20% grain. Depending on local feed costs and performance goals, if you are providing 30-50% of the diet as co products you have supplied 50-90% of your feed needs. This is utilizing just two feeds, such as corn silage and distillers grains. These calculations are all on a dry matter basis.

There are several ways to value corn silage. One method is based on the economic value of the feed components. A ton of corn silage, harvested at 40% dry matter will contain 8 bushels of corn and 400 pounds of forage dry matter. One way to price corn silage into the ration then would be to use the formula, 8 X (corn price per bu) + 400 X (price of forage on a dry matter basis). An example with $7 corn and forage (ground and delivered, dry matter basis) at $75 per ton would be (7 X 8 ) + 15 = $71 per ton. This is not far from the thumb rule of 10 X the corn price for the value of corn silage per ton that has been used by cattle feeders for many years. The most precise method of pricing corn silage is to consider the trade-off between fertilizer removal, harvesting costs and the market value of the grain. A spreadsheet decision aid program that evaluates this is available from the Ag Decision Maker website: http://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/crops/xls/a1-65cornsilagepricer.xls

One of the reasons for considering corn silage this year is that it can be harvested about a month before the combines begin to roll and the corn crop for the year is established. Earlage and high moisture corn are also an earlier harvest option. Some feeders that have the equipment may be looking at green chop corn to allow some harvest for immediate feed needs in August. Green chop corn can be an excellent feed. Many feeders actually prefer this method for starting calves when the feed is available. If considering this route, be sure to test the moisture content. Also if drought conditions exist be sure and chop high and take the proper precautions against nitrates in the material.

How are you managing high feed costs and the short corn crop? Are you considering some method of early harvest? Will you background the cattle? Will you increase you co-product usage? Will you be buying heavier cattle or marketing sooner? What options are you considering to manage high feed costs in the coming year?

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