Silage Cutting Just Getting Started

9/7/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

Thomas Boyer, a York dairy farmer, has been watching the weather over the past few weeks and “getting everything ready to go” as he prepares for another year’s silage cutting.

“The way the corn looks, it’s going to be a pretty good year for corn silage,” Boyer said. His corn was well above the knee-height benchmark at the Fourth of July and now stands well above his head. He expects to fill his two silos with good-quality feed to carry his cattle through the winter.

“It looks like it’s going to be a tremendous crop,” Alan Hostetter, a dairy farmer from Annville, said.

Some of Hostetter’s corn has gone from one-third dented to fully dented in a week, and he expects to be cutting at about 60 percent moisture. He plans to put his early corn in silos and bag his late corn for dry cows and heifers.

The harvest should be plentiful enough to shell 50 of his 130 acres for high-moisture corn, he said.

Hostetter planned to start cutting silage the last weekend in August, and Boyer aimed to start this week. These start times are consistent with what Penn State Extension educators have been seeing and hearing from other farmers around the state.

“We are close,” said Andrew Frankenfield, a Montgomery County educator. Corn planted in late April is starting to dry down, aided by warm weather. Some of the husks are already dry, and disease is sucking out some moisture as well.

Frankenfield estimated the moisture percentage to be between the 70s and mid-60s. He thinks grain yield could be above average, though he has not seen any numbers at this early stage.

“I think it’ll take less acres to fill their bunkers,” he said.

Sufficient rainfall has also allowed farmers to graze their animals a fair amount and has given alfalfa enough hydration to supply a third or fourth cutting.

More corn might go toward grain instead of silage this year because high yields may cause feed storage units to fill faster than anticipated, he said.

Of course, for dairy producers “it’s in their best interest to take silage” from at least most of their fields because it’s an easy way to get tons of feed, he said.

Some of that silage may end up in bags or other forms of temporary storage, though it is too soon to say whether farmers will be bagging more than in other years, he said.

The market may also affect what some farmers plan to do with their corn.

“There’s a little bit of excitement in the corn and soybean markets,” Frankenfield said. The upper Midwest got a late heat wave, with temperatures in Iowa and Minnesota hitting 100 degrees. The soybeans in that area were planted a little late, so the heat came as the pods were filling.

Many market-watchers are speculating that yields in those states may be lower than originally anticipated, he said, so corn and soybeans may be more valuable.

“Locally, we’re been very happy” with the weather, he said.

As for balage, “it’s been a great year for that,” Frankenfield said. Regular showers have helped alfalfa growth, but they have also made it difficult to get good haymaking weather.

On Tuesday, USDA estimated that 13 percent of Pennsylvania’s corn silage had been harvested. This is somewhat behind last year and the five-year average, which are closer to 25 percent.

Harvesting had started in Clarion, Franklin and Lancaster counties, while Adams County farmers were waiting for dry weather.

Whole-field silage cutting had not started in earnest in the last week of August, Berks County educator Mena Hautau said of her area. A few farmers are doing green chopping around the edges of fields in Berks County, though, to restock depleted feed reserves or see what their moisture content is.

“It seems like Lancaster really has the action going on right now,” Hautau said.

One Berks farmer did chop forage sorghum on shale ground already, she said. That farmer planned to use the sorghum for his heifers and cut the other acreage later.

Shale ground does not hold water well, so the farmer wanted to get the crop off before it could dry out.

Frankenfield, the Montgomery County educator, said this was a good pairing of crop with land. Forage sorghum can withstand dryness better than corn.

Hautau said the farmer chopped greater tonnage than he expected, which is a promising sign for the rest of the silage cutting.

While dry matter is plentiful, it is also important to ask, “What’s going on in the ear?” she said, especially after the July hot spell hit when a lot of corn was pollinating.

A corn judge at local fairs, Hautau has had a chance to look at a lot of corn. She has seen a lot of full, healthy ears, though some have not been completely pollinated at the tip.

“Most corn plants look really good,” she said.

Using proper procedures for storing feed is also important. “You’ve done all this great work — the labor, the gas, the equipment — but if it’s not packed correctly, what have you got?” she said.

Feed needs to be tightly packed in a bunker or silo to remove oxygen and start anaerobic fermentation, said Matthew M. Haan, another Berks County Extension educator.

Oxygen activates certain bacteria and molds that rot the feed. Farmers can also spread inoculants or acids in the feed to jump-start fermentation and lower the feed’s pH to a stable level, he said.

The ideal packing weight for a bunker is 15 pounds of dry matter per square foot, which is a difficult density to achieve throughout an entire bunk, Extension program manager Paul Craig said.

Large harvesters can haul feed to a bunk faster than tractors can pack it properly. “People want to get it done rapidly,” but taking the time to pack a bunker properly will result in better quality feed, he said.

Packing works best when there are 800 pounds of packing equipment per ton of silage. Even a small load like 100 tons would require 40 tons pushing on it.

Few tractors weigh 40 tons, but farmers can attach extra weights to the back, and the push blade makes the tractor heavier too, Craig said.

Overinflating the radial tires on the packing tractor shifts the burden from the outside of the tires to the center. Some tires can go as high as 30 psi, but it depends on the tires.

“To make good silage, it’s not just a follow this recipe,’ ” Craig said. “It is a biological process.”

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