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Planning your next silage season

Heather Smith Thomas for Progressive Forage Published on 31 December 2019
Corn variety trials

It always pays to plan ahead for the next crop season. Steven Hines, University of Idaho extension educator for Jerome County, says things a producer needs to think about during winter include maintaining machinery, such as the corn planter.

“It helps to go through a planter before the next season, making sure all parts are in good working order and properly adjusted. A good corn crop always starts with good soil but is also dependent on the planter. The seed has to all be placed at the same depth, with even spacing between seeds, to maximize yield. It is imperative that all plants emerge at the same time, within about a day of each other, to get the necessary uniformity,” he says.

“This starts with good planter maintenance, so you need to think about this during winter or early spring. If you own your own forage harvester, this is also a good time to go through it as well, checking for worn parts to see if there is anything you need to order, rather than waiting until September when it’s time to start rolling that harvester out to the field. If all maintenance work is done in the winter, this can save time during planting and harvest,” he says.

John Hall, extension beef specialist at University of Idaho and superintendent of the Nancy M. Cummings Research, Extension and Education Center, says most universities and seed companies have silage variety trials. “In fall or winter, a person could start looking at trial results to determine which silage variety might fit their operation and growing season. Across the country, there are huge variations in climate and length of growing season, but there many new short-season varieties that are very productive and quite good in terms of energy and protein content,” says Hall.

The brown midrib varieties are more digestible than the standard types but tend to be lower yielding. “What you select will depend on what you plan to use the silage for – whether youngstock, feedlot cattle, dairy cows or beef cows. For dairy, you’d want the highest quality you can get, whereas for cows and stocker calves, you’d probably be more interested in yield,” he says.

It’s always a good idea to work with your seed supplier and select a variety based on your particular needs. “At higher elevations, you’ll need a shorter-season, shorter-daylight variety of corn,” says Hines. “For example, we had a killing frost here the first of October. If your corn doesn’t fully ripen before frost, you are harvesting a crop with less quality.”

“The seed companies now have varieties geared not only to a certain temperature environment but also to different types of soil and moisture conditions – whether full irrigation or water-limited,” he says. Producers can customize their corn to specific conditions, deciding early in the season which variety will work best helps ensure you can get that variety, because sometimes the company will sell out of a particular variety early.

“If you wait until the week before planting, you may be stuck with the variety that is still in stock. There’s also possibility for price breaks if you order earlier in the season instead of during the heat of planting,” Hines says.

“Producers also need to think about where they are marketing their silage. Most of the silage in our area goes to feedlots or dairies. People need to work with whoever they will sell silage to and make sure contracts are in place before the production year. Perhaps, for whatever reason, a dairy they were going to sell to decides they don’t need as much as last year. Maybe they have some carryover. This would be good for the grower to find out, to know how many acres to plan for. Selling on the open market isn’t always wise, not knowing where you’ll be selling your crop. It’s like open-market potatoes; you are just rolling the dice regarding someone to buy it. If buyers know you have to get rid of it, this puts them in the driver’s seat in terms of price,” says Hines.

“The next thing to think about would be planting method, whether conventional or no-till, and what kind of herbicide might be needed,” says Hall. You can get advice from crop consultants or extension folks, to help you figure out what type of herbicide combination you might need, depending on which method you will be using.

One thing you can do pre-season to save money, if putting in a Roundup-Ready variety, which most people do, is purchase chemicals ahead of time. It often saves money to buy these in bulk and buy them early. “This also helps the agronomic companies, because then they know how much they need to order and bring in ahead of time, and they can often give some price breaks,” says Hines.

You also need to think about fertilizer. Sometimes there are price advantages in arranging to purchase ahead of the growing season, depending on the fertilizer market. “Taking soil samples and making sure you know the soil fertility can help you plan for proper fertility for corn, and at the same time plan for fertility that makes financial sense,” says Hines. “You can put more fertilizer on and make more yield, but it may not make economic sense to do so. At some point, the cost for increased yield will be more than the extra money you make.”

“It’s also important to plan for the pop-up fertilizer that goes in with the seed, any pre-planting-incorporated fertilizer, and any in-season fertilizers that you might want to put directly onto the leaves or through the sprinkler or irrigation systems,” he says.

If you can get soil tests done in the fall, those values will be about the same as what they’ll be in the spring, according to Hall. “The advantage of soil testing in the fall is that the soil test labs are not as busy then,” he says.

Depending on storage methods on the farm, you may not have to think about that aspect – whether you have a pit, bunker or an upright silo. “Some people might choose to go with an ‘ag bag,’” says Hall. If you have a facility that works, you probably don’t need to change, but there might be advantages to going with something different.

If you are relying on a custom harvester, visit with him ahead of time, to know who you will hire, and give them an idea about what time the corn will be ready. “Of course, the readiness will be weather-dependent,” says Hines. “This last year we had a cold spring that set us back two weeks. If you are new to silage production, you don’t want to be scrambling at the last minute to find someone to cut your corn. If it’s ready to go and just continues to sit in the field, you are losing quality, and there’s also a chance it will get frozen like it did this past fall – losing more tonnage. It helps to have all these plans in place well ahead of time,” he says.

It’s never too early to start thinking about next year’s crop. “Most folks who do a lot of farming already have next year and the year after planned. Those plans always need some flexibility, however. If we have a terrible winter with no snow, this may change the crop mix a little. Perhaps you can’t put in a full-season crop like sugarbeets and might have to plant something with a shorter season. Corn is not a whole lot shorter but might work better than the beets,” he says.  end mark

PHOTO: Corn variety trials at University of Idaho – Kimberly research farm show differing day length varieties that were planted the same day in early May. Photo provided by Steven Hines.

Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.