With the challenges of getting crops planted this year, many farmers might be weighing their options and reconsidering their planting intentions.
For producers who can market feedstuffs through livestock (particularly cattle), it may be premature to completely abandon corn simply due to calendar dates, explained Warren Rusche, South Dakota State University (SDSU) extension beef feedlot management associate.
“The key difference in marketing corn through cattle compared to cash grain marketing is that it isn’t absolutely necessary to dry down the crop, provided producers have a way to handle high-moisture feeds,” Rusche said.
Because crop dry-down isn’t a concern, Rusche said producers don’t need to worry about the risk of an early frost or an extended dry-down period. They can also eliminate the shrink and cost associated with drying corn.
“Harvesting the corn crop as a high-moisture feedstuff gives a producer three different options, harvest windows and eventual feed uses,” Rusche added. From a calendar standpoint, the options from earliest to latest are corn silage, high-moisture ear corn (also called earlage or snaplage) and high-moisture shelled corn.
According to Rusche, researchers at the University of Minnesota studied the differences in gross return per acre for those three options, alongside dry corn when marketed and fed through yearling steers.
Taking all factors into consideration, there were no differences among the harvest methods in gross return per acre or in equivalent value of the corn crop in dollars per bushel, Rusche said.
“This research suggests producers are not necessarily locked into one harvest method if they have the option to market grain through livestock,” he said.
Corn silage can be a primary roughage sources for both beef cow and backgrounding diets. Corn silage can also be utilized as a roughage source in cattle finishing diets with a range of inclusion rates, depending upon desired rates of gain and/or the relative abundance and costs of other feedstuffs, Rusche explained.
He noted that high-moisture ear corn has become more popular in recent years, especially with cattle feeders.
The cob and husk portion of the ear serves as a roughage source, which may eliminate the need for additional hay or silage.
Earlage should be harvested at about 35-40% moisture. Letting the crop get too dry is usually the greatest challenge with earlage, Rusche said.
High-moisture corn is typically harvested with a moisture content of approximately 24-34%. Like high-moisture ear corn, harvesting too dry leads to greater spoilage and reduced feed value.
The advantage to high-moisture corn is that it can be harvested with the same equipment used to harvest dry corn. Adding some method of grain processing such as grinding or rolling to the last step before storage improves fermentation, especially if stored in a bunker or pile, because it increases pack density and oxygen removal, Rusche said.
Even low-test weight corn may still have feeding value in the fall, he pointed out. While it is often assumed that the book feed value of light-test weight corn is lower than normal corn, SDSU research indicates that light-test weight corn actually has net energy values 15% greater than normal-weight corn. It is more similar to values expected for steam-flaked or high-moisture corn, he added.
“If lighter test weights are observed in this fall’s corn crop, cattle feeders need to not mistakenly reduce roughage content in the belief that light-test weight corn is lower energy and poses less acidosis risk,” Rusche said.
Many producers also may be looking for other options to meet forage needs for their livestock or commodities that can be marketed to livestock producers, SDSU said.
“Even for producers who may not own livestock, a forage crop can still hold economic potential. Harvesting forage or leasing grazing acres to neighbors who own livestock provides a way to create revenue on fields that may have otherwise been fallow or weedy this year,” SDSU extension agronomy field specialist Sara Bauder said.
Several factors should be considered before committing to a forage crop, added SDSU extension agronomy field specialist Ruth Beck. “Pay special attention to prior crop history, as some herbicides can affect subsequent crops. Producers need to make certain that this year’s alternative crop is compatible with last year’s production practices,” Beck said.
Another important factor is soil fertility. “Be cautious with applying high levels of nitrogen fertilizer to a planned forage crop. Oats and other cereal crops, along with many of the warm-season grasses like corn, forage sorghum, sorghum-sudan and sudangrass, all have potential to accumulate nitrates,” Beck said.
She explained that high levels of soil nitrogen can lead to excessive nitrate accumulation in the forage under some growing conditions.
Beck suggested the following alternative forage options to consider:
* Cover crop mixtures. Cover crop mixes offer a unique opportunity to diversify risk from environmental conditions, explained Beck. “Combinations of different species can increase quality and yield of a forage crop and offer greater potential for use for grazing, hay or silage,” she said.
* Hay millets. As the name implies, these crops are best suited to be harvested as hay rather than grazed or cut for silage. “These plants have fine stems and, with the exception of teff grass, cure the easiest compared to other summer annuals. Hay millet can produce forage in as little as eight weeks after planting,” Rusche said.
* Pearl millet. Pearl millet offers more production potential than hay millets. Rusche explained that pearl millet has the ability to regrow, making it a better option for grazing or for multiple cuttings at any growth stage.
Pearl millet has coarser stems than hay millet, making curing it for baled hay more challenging. Unlike sudangrass, sorghum-sudangrass and forage sorghum, pearl millet doesn’t accumulate prussic acid, which means that cattle would not have to be temporarily removed due to an early frost.
* Sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids. Because of the thicker stems for these crops, they are much better suited to be harvested as silage than hay.
“These also work well as supplemental summer grazing,” Rusche said. “Prussic acid can be a concern when grazed. However, the greatest risk for prussic acid poisoning occurs under drought conditions, when plants are damaged by frost or when livestock graze short regrowth.”
* Forage sorghum. This crop is the latest maturing and has the most production potential. Forage sorghum is best suited for silage production. Prussic acid can also be a concern in forage sorghum under similar conditions as sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids.