High land prices and persistent problems with haying weather in Western Canada are prompting more cattle producers to consider corn silage. Acreage has increased steadily in for the past five years, especially in Alberta where producers seeded 110,000 acres of silage corn in 2016, up from 70,000 acres in 2012.
“New genetics have made corn a viable, consistent option for Western Canada,” says Nicole Rasmussen, DuPont Pioneer’s area agronomist for Alberta and British Columbia. “Before, hybrids just weren’t early enough, but with advancements the last few years, producers can grow more silage of consistently high quality, and it’s more economical per acre than growing cereal silage.”
Manitoba Agriculture estimates corn silage production costs for 2016 at $31.40 per wet ton, compared to $38.93 per ton for barley silage and $35.98 per ton for alfalfa/grass silage.
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“When you have expensive land, would you rather utilize hay at 4.5 tons per acre or corn at 12.5 tons an acre?” asks Ray Bittner, a livestock specialist with Manitoba Agriculture.
“Corn silage is much more energy dense than hay or cereal silages, so adding fat deposits to cows in winter or gain on calves is easy, and it’s not hard to supplement the lower protein in the ration.”
Rasmussen says energy is the most important and expensive part of feeding cattle. Corn silage averages 66.4 per cent energy content TDN (total digestible nutrients) per ton compared to 65.5 per cent for barley silage and 60.4 per cent for alfalfa/grass silage.
“The more energy that’s in the silage, the less grain a producer has to feed, which is a cost benefit and is easier on the animal’s system,” Rasmussen says. “If a producer does a good job putting up barley silage, he gets 15 to 18 per cent starch, whereas good corn silage in Alberta has 25 to 32 per cent starch.”
André Steppler, a cattle producer near Miami, Man., started growing silage corn five years ago and says he will never go back to making hay.
“Corn silage has been hugely positive for us,” says Steppler, who first tried it because he wanted more consistent feed quality for his 1,000 purebred Charolais cows, bulls and yearlings. With high land prices and rental rates, he wanted to get more tonnage per acre.
“Corn silage is allowing us to do a better job of supplying nutrition and a balanced ration to our cattle, and we have a product we can control at all times so that the rumen environment is always what we want and we don’t risk damaging any animals because of the way they are fed,” says Steppler, who averages 15 to 19 tons of feed per acre.
“The quality of the feed is also better. In a year like this where we had rain every other day it would have been virtually impossible to get high-quality forage put up through hay bales.”
Steppler acknowledges there are some risks with growing only corn silage. An early frost could wipe out his winter feed source, but he tries to mitigate that by choosing a variety that is well within his maturity window — around the 2200- to 2300-heat unit range.
“We are more interested in having energy in the pile because we can add straw into our rations to give us extra tonnage,” says Steppler. “We are looking at the most amount of energy we can produce within the means of our heat units. That’s how we determine what we are going to grow.”
Custom contractors in demand
Most corn growers on the Prairies use custom contractors to chop and ensile their corn. The cost to chop and pack a good crop of corn silage is around $6.50 to $7.50 per ton, says Peter Gilbraith, a custom silage contractor from St. Claude, Man.
Custom operators can leverage their equipment costs over a much longer season, chopping alfalfa silage in May, June and July, making barley silage in July and August, and corn silage right up until November.
“Most corn should be cut in September and October but when frost comes in early September, the custom operator may have 40 days of corn silage work and only 10 good days before the corn gets too dry,” says Bittner.
“The last corn chopped will be over-dry and ensile poorly because of the poor ability to pack the air out. The other end of the issue is that a custom operator will try to start chopping the first corn as soon as a producer will let him, so often the first fields will be harvested too wet, and then the piles weep moisture and the silage does not ensile well in the pile causing protein losses and severe feed intake limitations.”
Unfortunately, there are not enough custom silage operators to go around. Gilbraith is turning work down as more and more producers turn to corn silage to replace hay.
Steppler uses a custom contractor to chop and pack his corn silage, which has freed up a lot of time previously spent baling, and is much cheaper than doing round-baled hay.
Since Steppler began growing corn silage a lot of his neighbours have followed suit, but they’ve had to collaborate with each other to try and make sure they get high-quality silage off at the right time.
“We all try to sow the same variety at the same time so that when it comes to the cutter coming all our fields are done at the same time,” says Steppler. “The biggest disadvantage of corn silage is to make sure your corn is cut when it needs to be cut. This year everybody was lucky but if we ever got a frost in early September everybody would need their silage done right away and it would be a disaster because there are just not enough custom guys doing it.”
Pick the right hybrid
Most grain and silage hybrids are interchangeable, but what’s important for producers to understand is that half of the silage yield and most of the energy comes from the corn ear, so producers shouldn’t necessarily exclude hybrids that are for grain. What’s more important is to look for hybrids that have been tested and proven to work locally.
Pride Seeds has a silage program called Total Ration Solutions which identifies corn hybrids by maturity zone for basic agronomics as well as the high energy and digestibility desirable for silage.
“Local testing is really important because the performance of corn hybrids differs by environment, so a product that does well in Manitoba may not necessarily do well in Alberta,” says DuPont Pioneer’s Rasmussen. “Producers should have a realistic idea of what their heat units are for their area and pick a product that fits, and understand that each company’s heat unit ratings are different.
“There is something called relative maturity and it’s kind of industry’s way to standardize ratings, but many of the ratings are for Eastern Canada and they don’t correlate to Western Canada. It’s important for producers to get out and look at test plots and make sure the product is proven in their area.”
It’s important for producers as well to match a corn hybrid for the long-term average heat units in their area, not just jump into a potentially unsuitable hybrid on the basis of a couple of good years.
“There can be a temptation to be more aggressive and go with a later hybrid, especially if you were basing that decision on a year like this one, where we didn’t have a killing frost until later in the season,” says Dave Den Boer, manager of product development and agronomy for Pride Seeds. “But that’s unusual, and to be risk free, a producer needs to know what heat units they normally get in their region averaged over three or more years.”
Hybrids should consistently reach harvest maturity just before frost, so selection is one of the most important management decisions in silage production.
Breeders are always looking to improve both yield and quality of corn hybrids whether it’s for grain or silage, but there are certain agronomic characteristics that make a variety better for silage.
“We look for the same basic agronomic factors such as strong emergence, leaf disease resistance, stalk strength and harvest maturity,” says Den Boer, who adds Pride Seeds and other companies will have new corn hybrids in each maturity group for both grain and silage in 2017.
“Our job isn’t done unless the farmer is putting more beef on the rail, or more milk in the tank,” says Doug Alderman, vice-president of sales and marketing for Pride.
“We test all maturities of corn for Goss’s wilt because it’s something we’ve seen as far north as Red Deer and Lacombe in yield-damaging amounts,” says Rasmussen. DuPont Pioneer has released some of the earliest corn hybrids on the market in the last couple of years and is adding new resistance traits. “We’re putting resistance to corn borer in all maturity groups as well with our Optimum AcreMax trait package,” he adds.
The potential for corn as a silage crop in Western Canada is growing, especially as producers can maximize their land base by growing more tons of feed per acre and potentially freeing up some acres for other crops, or to increase their herd size.
But beef and dairy prices will have to make the investment worthwhile.
“We can do all that we can agronomically to help producers grow corn,” says Alderman. “But at the end of the day, producers have to be in the cattle business to support the silage market ”
Manitoba Agriculture has an online tool on its website that can help producers calculate and compare their silage production costs.
This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of the Corn Guide