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Quality and tonnage: Can a corn silage grower have it all?

Art Graves Published on 28 September 2012

As a corn silage grower, you may think you have to sacrifice tonnage in order to achieve high forage quality. But, in fact, a silage grower can have it all.

With the wide selection of silage hybrids adapted to varying geographies and field conditions, it’s realistic to reach yield goals as well as the dairy producer’s nutritional needs.

Picking a hybrid for silage
Selecting a hybrid developed specifically for corn silage production is the best way to meet both tonnage and quality objectives.

Click here to read the related article appearing in the September 21, 2012 issue of Progressive Dairyman.

There was a time when producers thought the best grain corn hybrids also made the best corn silage. In fact, hybrids bred for grain production generally are not well suited for silage production because they don’t offer the high neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFD) that is the hallmark of a good silage hybrid.

Most commercial hybrids that are marketed as silage hybrids will provide adequate yields and starch levels. Selecting hybrids with a high NDFD will result in the best corn silage for the dairy herd.

Note that there is no substitute for digestible fiber. There is nothing on the market that can be purchased or added to corn silage to increase NDFD.

Once you have identified a potential list of silage hybrids, look closely at the most digestible silage hybrids that also provide the yield for the acreage available to meet your inventory needs. Always pick the highest NDFD hybrid that also will give you the tonnage you need.

Understand hybrid choices
There are several different types of silage corn hybrids on the market. Educating yourself about the characteristics of each can help you make the best decision possible.

1. Dual-purpose hybrids or grain hybrids harvested for silage.

Some hybrids were bred for grain but provide good tonnage, so they are marketed for both grain and silage production. Dual-purpose hybrids are often tall and attractive hybrids, but they have higher lignin content.

Lignin is the indigestible part of the plant. High lignin content means a low NDFD, making the grain hybrids less digestible. Cows fed this type of corn silage will not maximize their production potential.

If you are unsure if corn will be chopped for silage or combined for grain, consider choosing a dual-purpose hybrid for those flex acres, but screen these hybrids for the highest NDFD.

2. Non-BMR silage hybrids.

There are two classes on the market — leafy and non-leafy silage hybrids. Just because a hybrid is leafy does not mean it is a good silage hybrid.

Assess both leafy and non-leafy hybrids by looking at agronomic and quality characteristics to see if they can provide adequate yield, NDFD and starch levels.

Some leafy hybrids can have lower starch values because they produce more leaves and they do not guarantee more tonnage. Look at multisite and multiyear yield data in your area to determine if these silage hybrids are a fit for your operation.

3. BMR silage hybrids.

Brown midrib (BMR) corn hybrids are bred specifically for silage and offer the highest NDFD. Current BMRs offer competitive yields in most environments, but they work best in low-stress environments with high-water-holding-capacity soils or irrigated land.

Currently, there are two of the four known BMR gene mutations available in the marketplace. Studies over many years have been conducted to determine the differences between the BMR gene mutations, and they have proven that the bm3 gene confers the highest NDFD. It is important to consult with your supplier as to which gene their BMR silage hybrids are using.

Position hybrids properly
While the goal of any dairy operation is to produce the most milk in the most economical way, the silage grower is concerned with tonnage requirements, field conditions and acreage availability.

Therefore, it is imperative to learn about the agronomic characteristics of the hybrids you are considering for silage production.

As with grain corn, silage corn hybrids need to be the correct fit for the geography, soil type and climate. Often high-NDFD hybrids bred specifically for silage, like BMR varieties, will yield as well as non-BMR hybrids when positioned correctly on a farm.

Getting input from your local seed supplier is one of the best ways to educate yourself about which hybrids will have the best agronomics for your fields.

Ask your seed supplier or agronomic adviser about recommended plant populations, fertility and moisture needs of the hybrids you are considering and match them to your field conditions.

Set yield and quality goals
There are many factors to consider when selecting the appropriate hybrid for silage, so before making a purchasing decision, discuss the nutritional needs of the dairy with the producer and together set realistic goals for both yield and forage quality.

Then select hybrids based on your joint goals, checking local yield and performance data before making a final purchase decision.  FG



Art Graves
Customer Agronomist
Mycogen Seeds