Properly preparing and managing silage can reduce losses and improve an operation’s bottom line.
A key to any successful cattle operation is sound management of the feed supply. From the cow-calf producer to the dairy or feedlot owner, this involves not just managing feed quality control but also implementing sound strategies to reduce feed losses and keeping close watch on the balance sheet. For producers who utilize silage as a feed source for their cattle, taking steps to reduce silage dry matter (DM) loss, also called shrink loss, can have a significant impact on the cost of production.
Keith BolsenKeith Bolsen consults with David Breiner at Mill Creek Ranch near Alma, Kan., as the silage contractor chops the last few loads. They comprise the “silage triangle,” which includes the beef producer, the forage grower and the silage contractor. According to Keith Bolsen, professor emeritus at Kansas State University, most of the mistakes made occur before the silage is in the ration. It is estimated that between 18 and 20 percent of 117.85 million tons of corn silage made in the United States in 2013 will be lost to shrink. At $65 per ton that’s about $1.4 billion in corn silage inventory. If shrink losses were reduced to single digits, say 9.9 percent, the loss would drop to about $750 million. Bolsen says paying attention to details and fine-tuning one’s silage program, especially with regard to increasing silage density, improving sealing technique and utilizing an inoculant, can significantly reduce DM loss and, thus, reduce the cost of feeding a ton of silage.
Maximizing silage density
Achieving a higher packing density and reducing DM loss go hand-in-hand for multiple reasons. First, more densely packed silage in a bunker silo or drive-over pile is less porous, meaning less air moves through the silage and, subsequently, less spoilage occurs. Second, a higher packing density increases storage capacity of the bunker without over-filling or decreases the height of the pile without reducing storage capacity.
Bolsen says producers should aim to achieve a silage density of about 15 to 16 pounds of DM per cubic foot and 44 to 46 pounds of fresh weight per cubic foot. Unfortunately, many beef and dairy operations are not achieving that desired silage density, and he encourages producers to use a spreadsheet developed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin Extension (bit.ly/zCfRj0) to predict packing density in advance. Two best practices for achieving higher densities are increasing the number of pack tractors and spreading forage in uniform layers that are 6 inches thick or less. Producers must remember if forage is delivered too quickly or not enough pack tractors are available, it can be difficult to achieve a uniform layer of 6 inches and to pack each individual layer before another layer of forage is added.