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1208 PD: Lay down your silage

Published on 15 August 2008

Anyone traveling through the Midwest will see a large assortment of silos: big, small; green, red, blue.

But is the silo becoming a thing of the past, like the old barns that often stand beside them? While silos are not useless, other storage methods produce consistency in ensiling, speed in packing and efficiency in feedout that many producers prefer.

The father-son tandem of Bob and Nate Kuball in Waterville, Minnesota, are moving away from vertical silage options to horizontal methods of “putting-up” silage. They still use their silos for high-moisture corn, but the rest of their silage is stored in drive-over piles and bunkers.

“One of the biggest things that has changed is the type of storage structures,” says Nate Kuball, part-owner of Kuball Dairy.

“Twenty years ago, when my dad (Bob Kuball) was in charge of the management of the farm, they put up a lot of silos, which were good storage structures but were a lot of maintenance.

They were slow to load and unload, so now we’ve gone to flat storage on the ground: drive-over piles and bunkers for all the wet forages.”

Nate and Bob have found that in addition to no moving parts and better quality feed, another bonus for these storage systems is flexibility.

“We used to have two silos for haylage, each holding about 400 tons,” Bob says about their 650-acre farm. “And three smaller ones for corn silage. The haylage would only feed 80 cows for 12 months, so we couldn’t feed nearly as many cows as we do now. The thing about drive-over piles is easy expansion.”

New management systems come with new bugs to work out. A common problem with drive-over piles is dirt in the feed and possible clostridial contamination from the soil.

Nate and Bob put in a rock-base lime pad, to keep the dirt out of the feed and to help cut down on the ash content in their silage and reduce the abundance of mud around the piles from winter thaw and spring showers.

Half of the dairy’s silage will sit on the new pad. Another adjustment is in packing. Since gravity isn’t packing their silage now, they have to use two or three tractors just for packing, while trying to keep up with the efficient harvesting equipment.

“In the early days, we couldn’t get the silage put up very fast because of equipment, but now we shoot to do it in two to three days,” Nate says.

“We put it up, spend time packing it really good and cover it really quick. If you take a week to put it up, you have brown layers and mold growing in some places, and the weather isn’t always ideal.

“It takes one guy hauling, one guy packing, one guy chopping, one guy merging and one guy cutting,” Nate says. “That’s the challenge – for two to three days you need four to five extra people.”

Either Nate or Bob will pack the piles, keeping them close to the dairy, but also letting them monitor how well the pile is prepared. In an effort to get the pile packed and covered quick, the Kuballs can’t afford to be sloppy.

“It’s never packed enough,” Bob says. “In our operation you just constantly pack. It can’t be packed too much or over-packed. When the tires stop sinking, you feel comfortable bringing in another load, but if it doesn’t come right away, you just keep packing.”

The Kuballs will have one or two four-wheel-drive tractors dedicated to packing so that when each load is pushed up it is immediately relieved of any excess air.

The Kuballs have changed a few things in the timing of their harvest. They used to start harvesting haylage around the first week of June and every 30 days after that, getting three, maybe four, cuts a year.

“Now we start cutting using a peak stick or a scissor cut to decide when to make the first cut,” Nate says. “On an average year, we usually start around the 20th of May.

This year, it was a little later, because it has been colder. From there we cut every 25 days depending on the heat, so we get four to five crops every year, easily. By shortening up that cutting window we have increased our feed value.”

Bob says he noticed that shorter periods between cuts, 20-23 days, does stress the alfalfa, which leads to more winterkill. He also mentioned that the shorter period was necessary during the hotter temperatures in 2007.

“Our second crop last year when it was so hot and dry, it started budding at 21 days, and we cut it at 23 days,” Nate said. “It wasn’t very tall, but was starting to mature.”

The Kuballs have 650 acres they farm, which more than feeds their cows. They use 170 acres of their 300 acres of corn for their own feed and sell the rest.

They like a wetter silage variety corn for two-thirds of their corn silage. Then they use brown mid-rib (BMR) corn to make up the other third. They also grow 150 acres of hay and 200 acres of soybeans.

As for the future of Kuball Dairy’s silage systems, they are eager to see if the rock-base lime pad will improve their forage quality and production. If it will, they plan to install enough to hold all their silage. They would also like to see more drought-resistant varieties of BMR and other advances to improve quality in forages.  PD

Ryan Curtis
Assistant Editor
Progressive Dairyman