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Turning to silage during drought

Jeff Caldwell 07/19/2012 @ 10:44am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

The cattle herd's hurting out there and producers are struggling to find ways to keep their animals fed in a year when forage is in extremely short supply on account of ongoing drought conditions around the country.

One option is silage. A lot of corn farmers are watching their crops literally burn away before their eyes, but some of those fields can be chopped for silage if the conditions are right. But, if conditions aren't right, it can create more problems than it can solve, experts say.

Many ranchers have been supplementing pasture for weeks, and pasture conditions have been declining rapidly in the first half of July, especially. For example, Kentucky ag officials say just over 3/4 of that state's pasture is rated either poor or very poor. And, with almost as much of that state's corn crop in the same condition, Kentucky ag commissioner James comer says it may be a good idea to use one to take care of the other.

"Feeding silage can help livestock producers who need to feed their animals because their pastures are suffering from the dry weather,” says Comer. "But producers should be careful about feeding corn silage until they have determined that the nitrogen content is at an acceptable level."

In addition to nutrient, it's important to keep an eye on moisture levels, the ideal range of which is different depending on how you'll handle the silage once it's chopped, says Iowa State University Extension forage specialist Stephen Barnhart.

"The 'ideal' moisture  is 65-70% for silo bags and bunkers; 60-65 % for upright silos. As moisture drops much below 55% the forage will not pack as tightly, trapping more oxygen in the forage. Under ‘ideal’ conditions, respiration, during the first day of ensiling, uses up the oxygen -- and in the process generates some heat. As the moisture gets lower and more oxygen is present, the chopped silage gets warmer than normal and 'burns up' more of the available plant sugars."

What's the heat matter? It reduces protein digestibility in silage, which is typically already in limited supply, especially when it's as hot as it's been this summer. The more silage heats up after it's packed, the more protein is lost and the greater the chances for other storage issues to arise.

"Chopped corn at 45% to 50% moisture will ensile, but will heat some," he says. "In really large piles of drier-than-it-should-be chopped forage, if the heat cannot be dissipated, it could build to high enough temps to cause spontaneous combustion like wet hay barn fires."

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