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0408 PD: Silage as a management option

C. M. Jones, A. J. Heinrichs and G. W. Roth Published on 27 February 2008

Feeding adequate quantities of high-quality forages is the basis of profitable milk and livestock production. Forage production, harvest, storage and feed practices have changed greatly over the past 50 years, and silage has become a staple forage.

Compared to hay production, silage increases the potential yield of nutrients from available land, decreases feed costs, lowers harvest losses and often increases forage quality. Silage can also reduce labor needs through greater mechanization of harvesting and feeding.

High-level management and sizeable financial outlays are necessary to efficiently produce, harvest, store and feed silage. The information in this [article] should enable you to make more effective decisions about harvesting, managing and feeding silage.

Advantages of silage
Relative nutrient yield – Corn harvested as silage yields the greatest quantities of energy per acre, and alfalfa produces the greatest quantities of protein per acre. Both alfalfa and grass usually provide more energy and protein when harvested as silage than as hay.

Reduced field losses – Direct-cutting of hay silages avoids extended weather damage and leaf shattering; even wilting hay silages may result in reduced losses when compared to dry hay. Losses from ear dropping and grain shattering that occur during corn silage harvest are lower than those occurring during grain harvest.

Flexible harvest dates – Producers can decide late in the growing season how much corn to harvest as silage or as grain. Small grains and other annuals such as sorghum-sudan hybrids may also be harvested as silage or grain.

Efficient use of labor – Timing of harvest and scheduling of labor can be extended by planting crop varieties of differing maturities. Combining various crops, such as grasses, legumes and corn, can spread labor and management demands over the entire cropping season. Silage systems are also more mechanized and less labor-intensive than dry hay systems, which can increase labor productivity.

Disadvantages of silage
Storage losses
– Silage storage losses can be high if crops are not harvested at the proper moisture content, facilities are inadequate, the crop is not chopped correctly and packed well or silos are not sealed properly.

Potential spoilage – Silage must be fed soon after removal from storage to avoid spoilage due to exposure to oxygen. Storage facilities with an exposed silage surface must be sized to match the feeding rate to prevent spoilage. Also, when silage feeding is discontinued for a long period, resealing is required to avoid greater storage losses and spoilage problems.

Intensive management – Producing high-quality silage requires intensive management of all aspects of the ensiling process. Poor silage management practices can result in reduced feed quality, low milk production and increased risk of health problems. Proper management practices help to limit these risks.

Handling and storage costs – Silage is bulky to store and handle, so storage costs can be high relative to its feed value. Storage facilities are specialized and have limited alternative uses. Silage is costly to transport relative to its bulk and low density of energy and protein. Therefore, transportation costs often limit the distance silage can be moved.

Investment costs and cash flow – The machinery and equipment investment per ton of silage harvested, stored and fed can be high unless a large quantity is handled annually. Furthermore, inadequate cash flow during the financing period may cause difficulties in carrying out what appears to be a profitable investment. This situation has led to the development of a custom operations industry in many areas.

Few market outlets – There are few ready off-farm markets for silage in most areas, except for close neighbors. Moving silage from one silo to another is risky, especially for haylage. Therefore, when a crop is harvested as silage, the farmer is usually committed to feeding it to livestock.  PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

—From Penn State University Extension

C. M. Jones, Research Associate; A. J. Heinrichs, Professor, Department of Dairy and Animal Science; G. W. Roth, Professor, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences; Penn State University

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