If there’s one thing the dairy industry has learned from the corn boom of the past few years, it’s that corn silage is not really a commodity product. Rather, it’s a highly valuable-yet-diverse feedstuff that may have the ability to dramatically impact a dairy’s profitability.
“I’ve worked with silage for more than three decades, and I can honestly say I’ve learned more in the past three years than the rest of my career,” says John Kurtz, North American Cattle Team Manager for Chr. Hansen, Inc. in Milwaukee, Wis. “The high value of corn, combined with our expanding knowledge of ruminant nutrition, has placed tremendous focus on maximizing absolutely the highest possible nutritive return from a very traditional dairy feedstuff.”
ShredlageTM a game-changer
A recent advancement in corn-silage processing has been the advent of Shredlage™, which is type of corn silage harvested using a custom set of processing rolls mounted on a conventional chopper. The Shredlage processing unit shreds the corn plant longitudinally, while simultaneously shattering the corn kernel. The more vertical processing pattern allows for longer chop lengths, typically ranging from 26 to 28 mm.
Kurtz says this method of processing should provide a number of benefits compared to conventionally processed corn silage, including:
• More physically effective fiber (peNDF), which slows passage rates and provides more rumen scratch, allowing producers to replace other fiber sources in the ration.
• More readily available starch and sugars as a result of greater surface area and a higher degree of kernel processing.
• A more consistent fiber source compared to alternatives like alfalfa, which can vary tremendously in moisture and dry-matter levels from one cutting to the next.
Wisconsin nutritionist Jim Barmore with GPS Dairy Consulting says these theoretical advantages have proven to be true in practice on his clients’ farms that have adopted Shredlage. He says the herds that have begun using Shredlage have, indeed, been able to cut back on other fiber sources in the TMR, and the Shredlage has supported excellent kernel and starch processing.
The nutritionist keeps a close eye on fecal starch levels, which he likes to see in the range of just 1 to 2 percent. “Any higher than that, and we are wasting energy,” he says. “The herds using Shredlage have been able to keep fecal starch scores desirably low.”
Both Barmore and Kurtz plan to do more extensive monitoring of ensiled Shredlage throughout its feeding life this year. In theory, a higher level of processing should change the timeframe of fermentation, potentially making it possible to feed higher-quality silage sooner after harvest. Kurtz collected dozens of samples “off the spout” as Shredlage was made on various dairies this past fall, and he will compare those results to samples taken from now-packed Shredlage, as well as during feed-out from bunker faces. Barmore plans to take composite samples from feeding faces throughout the feeding period — as frequently as once a week — to measure changes in feed value throughout the “lifetime” of this year’s Shredlage crop.
Initial research shows promise
Because Shredlage is a fairly new innovation, formal research to evaluate its merits is just beginning. One of the first Shredlage studies was conducted by extension dairy nutritionist Randy Shaver and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin.
In that trial, nine acres of corn were chopped as Shredlage at a particle length of 30 mm, compared to conventional corn silage chopped at 19 mm with a kernel processor. Both crops were ensiled in plastic silage bags. The 112 cows in the trial were divided into two feeding groups and fed either the conventional corn silage or Shredlage.
The results showed that:
• Corn silage processing score, defined as percent of starch in silage particles <4.75 mm, for conventional corn silage was 60 percent, compared to 75 percent for Shredlage.
• Feed intake for Shredlage was higher by 1.5 pounds per day.
• Milk production (3.5 percent fat-corrected milk [FCM]) was 3.0 to 4.5 pounds per day higher for the Shredlage group after several weeks on the trial.
• FCM efficiency averaged 1.78 for both groups.
• Total tract NDF digestibility was 4 percent higher for Shredlage.
• Total tract starch digestibility was 1.9 percent higher for Shredlage.
Will it pack, will it pay?
In his discussions with nutritionists and dairymen regarding Shredlage, Kurtz says two major concerns are: (1) Will the large particle size of Shredlage interfere with excellent packing and fermentation in the bunker or bag? and (2) Will the additional cost for processing Shredlage (currently a premium of about $25/hour or $0.75-$2/ton) be offset by ration adjustments and/or production gains?
Both of these are legitimate concerns, he says.
Today, he has a concrete answer for one of the two: Any differences in silage quality are due to packing techniques and procedures, not in the way the silage was processed.
Regarding the second question of pay-off, more dedicated studies will need to be performed. But Barmore is optimistic that, based on the initial Wisconsin trial and his clients’ personal experiences, producing Shredlage or a corn silage product with similar characteristics will prove to be financially worthwhile.
“In almost all regions of the country, the economics of feeding corn silage are very favorable for dairies,” he says. “The keys to maximizing the value of that feedstuff will be in processing it such a way that we can extract maximum nutritive value from it, and having specific metrics and goals in place to define the quality of the end product.”
Shredlage™ is a trademarked, patented technology from Shredlage™, L.L.C.
Sidebar: A dairyman’s views after two crops of ShredlageTM
When Tom Mueller was in the market for a new silage chopper in 2012, he purchased one of first units in the country that was retrofitted with a ShredlageTM processor.
“The main reason we were interested in Shredlage was because we wanted to gain more control over growing our own feedstuffs,” say Mueller, who is president of Miltrim Farms, Inc., a 1,800-cow dairy near Athens, Wis. “Our hope was that the ability to use a longer particle length would help us cut down on the purchased straw and whole cottonseed we were using in our TMR.”
Miltrim Farms is one of the few dairies in the country that has processed Shredlage for two years. And, like nearly any two crop years, they were very different.
“This past year was a drought year, and we had to process a lot more acres to fill the bunkers. I’m happy with the quality of the product, though, and I think the more vigorous kernel obliteration with the Shredlage processor helped to maximize our feed value out of that dry corn.”
Working with his nutritionist, Jim Barmore, Mueller has been able to pull all of the straw and some of the cottonseed out of his lactating TMR. Milk production for the herd has increased at the same time, although there have been other factors besides Shredlage that have changed in the herd the past two years.