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Silage management in two beef operations

Robert Fears for Progressive Forage Published on 30 August 2019
compacting silage

Silage can play a big part in nutritional programs for beef cattle and offers several advantages over hay and other feeds.

Nutrient losses in standard hay production are sometimes as high as 30% of dry matter, while losses in silage are usually less than 10%. Nutrient content of silage is stable for a longer period of time than hay (often up to five years) and has a higher nutrient content. Corn silage has 30% to 50% higher nutritive value than grain and straw.

In addition, silage offers more economical use of forage because of high yields of green mass. A forage crop is normally harvested at an early growth stage and only needs 30% dry matter for good-quality silage. Another strong attribute of silage is: Fermentation reduces nitrates accumulated in plants during drought and in heavily fertilized crops, thus reducing the risk of nitrate poisoning in cattle.

44 Farms

44 Farms, an Angus seedstock producer at Cameron, Texas, feeds silage year-round to supplement pasture forage. The combination of pasture grass and silage provides a steady supply of the nutrients needed to grow good breeding stock.

“We continuously monitor body condition and try to keep scores at 6 or 7,” says Doug Slattery, chief operating officer of 44 Farms. “Our objective is to keep our cattle in good shape, but we don’t allow them to become fat. Bulls with excess weight don’t meet performance expectations because they aren’t range-ready. Feed rations for 44 Farms cattle consist of pasture grasses and silage, so they are accustomed to a roughage-based diet.”

“Our river bottoms, consisting of loam and clayey sand soils, are used for our farming operations,” says Luke Jenkins, director of farm operations. “For silage, we currently plant SS405 variety sweet sorghum developed by Sorghum Partners in Lubbock, Texas. We like this variety for several reasons. It has good nutrient content with an average 4.9% crude protein, 8.9% starch and 63.4% TDN [total digestible nutrients]. SS405 is high-yielding, producing 19 to 20 tons of silage per acre on our dryland farms. It is drought-tolerant and can also stand short periods of standing water, which occurs on our bottomland fields.”

“We originally planted corn for silage, but we had trouble with feral hogs,” Jenkins says. “The hogs dug up the seed after planting and later ate the ears at the roasting stage. They don’t bother the sorghum, which lowers the cost of silage production. Sorghum is also more economical to plant. Corn and sorghum seed are comparable in price, but a 50-pound bag of corn seed will cover only about 3.3 acres. We plant over 6 acres with a 50-pound bag of sorghum. Our corn silage yields were only about 14 tons per acre compared to the 19 to 20 tons we harvest with sorghum.”

Sorghum is planted at 44 Farms from early to mid-April and harvested around mid-July. At harvest, the plants are 11 to 12 feet high, are in the hard dough stage and have a moisture content of 68% to 71%. The crop is custom harvested by Huffman Farms at McGregor, Texas. Huffman Farms does a significant amount of custom harvesting in addition to storing and delivering more than 50,000 tons of corn silage to dairies around central Texas.

“Cutter blades on the forage harvester are set to cut the plants into three-quarter-inch pieces, which our cattle will readily consume. Inoculant is added to the forage as it is blown through the harvester delivery chute into the trailer,” says Jenkins. “A six-wheeled tractor equipped with a blade is used in the silo to level and pack the fodder. The fodder is packed in layers and, once the silos are full, the silage is tarped. Our silos have a concrete bottom and three sides, leaving one end open for access. The sides are sloped for easy exit in case of an emergency.”

Premium Beef and Grain

A company solely dedicated to producing natural beef is Premium Beef and Grain located about halfway between Lone Wolf and Hobart, Oklahoma. The company is owned and operated by C.R. Freeman, who has mastered the techniques of feeding calves for natural beef production. Feedstuffs in the feedlot rations include barley, corn, barley silage, corn silage, alfalfa hay, alfalfa silage, barley straw and distillers grain. All of the corn and barley and a portion of the alfalfa used in silage are grown by Premium Beef and Grain. All produced crops are from non-GMO (genetically modified organism) seed.

“We are gradually replacing distillers grain with alfalfa silage,” says Freeman. “The two feeds are very close in nutrient content, and we can buy alfalfa locally to supplement our production. Switching to alfalfa silage helps provide a market for the local farmers and saves us the cost of hauling distillers grain long distances from the distilleries. We like silage because of its nutritive value and the ability to harvest it at higher moisture contents than required for hay. We windrow hay and hope it dries before a rain. With silage, we don’t have that concern.”

Barley harvest and the first cutting of alfalfa usually occur around May 15, and corn is harvested at the end of July. Both grains are harvested in the hard-dough stage. Barley and alfalfa are cut, windrowed and then picked up by the harvester. These two silages are stored in bags that are 10 to 14 feet wide and 8 to 10 feet tall. The bags seal tightly, allowing silage to ferment with little or no spoilage. Silage is taken from the bags with a wheel loader, using one or two buckets for each feed ration. Corn is cut with the forage harvester without windrowing and stored in bunker silos.

“Corn silage stores in a bunker silo better than barley and alfalfa because it has hollow stems and packs better. Our silos are a flat concrete slab with the sides made of loose concrete blocks,” says Freeman. “There is less spoilage in silos with three solid concrete walls, but our installation costs less, which more than covers the cost of our spoilage.”

Silage can provide a nutritious form of roughage to enhance beef cattle growth and performance, regardless of whether it is fed year-round or only during periods of low nutrient content in pasture grass.  end mark

PHOTO: Silage is layered and packed in bunkers at Premium Beef and Grain at Hobart, Oklahoma. Photo by Robert Fears.

Robert Fears is a freelance writer based in Georgetown, Texas. Email Robert Fears