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Check corn nitrates before ensiling

Jeff Caldwell 08/15/2012 @ 10:18am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

The drought's had nitrates moving up in many corn stalks out there, and if you're feeding drought-stressed corn silage, it's important to test it for potential buildups of the chemical so it's not passed on to cattle, at which point it can become a major problem.

During a normal growing season, nitrates can build up in corn stalks, but only about 1 1/2 feet up from the soil's surface. So, the portion of the plant chopped for silage typically doesn't contain high nitrate levels. But, in a drought year, those nitrates can move into the upper parts of the plant. That's when trouble starts, says University of Missouri veterinary pathobiology and toxicology specialist.

"This chemical can be very harmful to animals, especially cattle, if they eat corn plants or other vegetation containing too much nitrate. Eating plants with too much nitrate can cause damage to red blood cells, resulting in lethargy, miscarriage, and even sudden death," Evans says.

The good news is if you have your corn tested and you're showing nitrates, but they're not yet at dangerous levels, ensiling can lower those nitrate levels. But, make sure you get a firm grasp of the nitrate levels you're facing.

"Producers have several options to help determine whether nitrate toxicity might be a problem," says Iowa State University veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine specialist Steve Ensley. "Assess the corn field that will be harvested to determine how much of the field has stunted corn that’s not developing a normal ear. Take samples either by taking grab samples of silage cut by a forage chopper or by cutting several entire plants by hand that represent the various types of corn in the field."

Check with your local university Extension office to learn more about how to get your field samples tested for nitrates, specialists advise.

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