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Producing blue-ribbon silage

Bill Sutliff for Progressive Forage Published on 16 July 2019

A high-quality forage is the foundation for a successful dairy diet. One of the best ways to measure success is to test your forage before and after fermentation. Testing sets the stage for building a complete diet to keep your herd happy and healthy.

Many producers take their results a step further by entering samples in the World Forage Analysis Superbowl (WFAS) to compare with farms across the nation. Winners of the annual contest earn prizes and accolades for producing award-winning forage. We talked with the 2018 WFAS winners and got their tips for growing silage for success in the barn, in the milk tank and, ultimately, in the bank. Here’s what they offered as advice.

Start with a winning hybrid

Winning silage starts with a winning hybrid. During seed selection, set herd goals and build a diet to meet or exceed those standards. BMR silage corn hybrids are known for their low-lignin content, which provides higher fiber digestibility. With improved digestibility, cows increase their dry matter intake (DMI) and produce milk more efficiently.

BMR silage corn is the reliable choice for Shawn Bossard, the general manager of the dairy facility at State University of New York (SUNY) at Morrisville. Bossard and his team were named Grand Champion of the BMR silage corn category in the 2018 WFAS.

“When you look at the cost per cow per day on a BMR diet, it’s hard to beat,” Bossard says. “We’re still saving 20 cents per cow per day on a BMR diet compared with a conventional silage corn.”

Get a quick start and keep pace

As with any crop, farmers need to strategically manage silage corn from day one. Jerry Stockman of Hylight Farms LLC in Adams, New York, and winner of the 2018 Quality Counts Corn Silage category, which was scored on potentially digestible neutral detergent fiber (pdNDF), starts with his best fields when planting BMR silage corn.

“Planting BMR on marginal soils will produce just a marginal silage,” Stockman says. “You need to be specific on your field selection so the crop has access to the best soil you can offer.”

With BMR hybrids, farmers make an investment for improved digestibility and efficiency. As you build your plan for planting silage corn hybrids, be certain to provide ample fertility to protect this investment and to supply much- needed nutrients throughout the growing season.

Especially in the Upper Midwest and Northeast climates, apply a fungicide to keep plants healthy until harvest. Foliar fungicides can protect BMR hybrids against diseases. Stockman applies a fungicide just before tasseling to keep corn healthy and boost tonnage at harvest.

In the West, farmers need to have a plan to battle spider mites to preserve quality. In a warm and dry climate, mites can move rapidly. Damage from spider mites can reduce leaf tissue and compromise stalk quality and may ultimately cause premature death. The best way to combat spider mites is with an insecticide program and regular irrigation to avoid drought conditions.

Keep an eye on the finish line

Harvest plays a key role in preserving plant integrity and being able to feed high-quality corn silage after fermentation. Everything counts when it’s time to feed your herd, including dry matter levels and kernel processing.

For a successful harvest, monitor dry matter levels so you can harvest when the crop is ready. Harvesting when the crop is too wet can cause loss of crucial nutrients, and harvesting when it’s too dry will prevent solid packing for optimal fermentation. For BMR hybrids, we recommend harvesting once the crop reaches a range of 32% to 35% dry matter. Start scouting fields 33 to 35 days after tasseling and silking so you know which fields are maturing the fastest.

Also, talk with your nutritionist about the proper chop length and kernel processing to fit your hybrid choices. BMR hybrids are more digestible, so they require a slightly longer chop length to assist in rumen function and rate of passage. Kernel processing is equally important to ensure access to starch and nutrients.

During harvest, pack and fill silage quickly for storage. Tightly packed corn silage creates the ideal environment for effective fermentation. Cover the silage pile immediately after filling to help eliminate air infiltration into the pile. Post-harvest is also a great time to pull a vacuum-sealed sample so you can analyze your silage quality later and build a nutrition plan based on the results.

Winner takes all

Growing high-quality silage during the season yields results as you begin to feed and incorporate it into the diet. Doug Dotterer of Dotterer Dairy in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania, has experienced this firsthand. Dotterer was named the 2018 Grand Champion Forage Producer.

“BMR takes some management, but the digestibility pays off down the road,” Dotterer said. “We are able to feed more forage with the higher digestibility, and it’s a great cost-effective tool for the farm.”

Dotterer, and other WFAS champions, have grown high-quality silage for improved digestibility, improved milk per cow and more. Table 1 shows their results from the 2018 competition.

Forage analysis from winning entries at World Forage Analysis Superbowl 2018

We hope to see you there among the winners at WFAS this fall.  end mark

Bill Sutliff