Some North Dakota producers may be faced with having to use their corn, sunflower, wheat, barley, oat or other crops for hay, grazing or silage because of this year's drought conditions.
"One of the major concerns with using corn in drought areas is the level of nitrates," says Carl Dahlen, a North Dakota State University beef cattle specialist. "Whether haying or ensiling corn, the producer needs to cut the stalks higher off the ground because nitrates accumulate in the lower portion of the corn stalk."
Ideally, wrapping or bagging the bales to produce bale silage will help the fermentation process start and lower the concentration of nitrates in the hay.
Ensiling whole corn plants can be difficult because of the challenges in getting adequate oxygen exclusion necessary for proper fermentation.
Nitrate levels will not decrease in corn hay as they will in silage. Dahlen recommends producers have the corn tested for nitrate levels whether they put up drought-stressed corn as hay or silage.
Feedstuffs testing high in nitrate levels will need to be diluted with feeds with low nitrate content before feeding it to livestock.
He also recommends producers check the labels of any herbicide they have been using to make sure it is labeled for haying.
The moisture level in corn hay is a concern as well. To store the corn as hay, the moisture level should be 15 to 18 percent or lower.
If the drought-stressed crop is going to be hayed, the sooner it's harvested, the better, according to Dahlen.
"We are talking about what is basically a coarse grass," he says. "The hay must be mechanically processed or crimped to help facilitate field curing, and it should be cured about seven to 10 days to cure effectively."
Baling also can be a challenge with corn. In some cases, large square bales may work the best. However, spontaneous combustion can be a danger in bales with poor dry-down and excessive moisture. In addition, mold can develop, which will lower the feeding value of the hay and potentially cause other feeding problems.
Haying may work in areas with drought-stressed corn. But in areas where corn height is near normal, a large volume of material would need to dry down in the windrow, which may prevent the corn from being turned into hay. In these cases, grazing or ensiling immature corn may be the only options.
"The level of nutrients in the hay will decrease with maturation," Dahlen says.
"So the hay should be tested for nutrient composition as well nitrate levels."
Drought-stressed corn hay will provide nutrient quality comparable to a medium- to poor-quality forage. Immature corn silage will have a higher crude protein content and a lower energy content than normal corn silage. In addition, immature corn will have greater levels of moisture, making ensiling more challenging.
Nitrate-containing feeds should be introduced slowly into livestock rations, Dahlen says. Nitrate poisoning symptoms include increased pulse rate; heavy, quickened breathing; muscle tremors; weakness; staggered gait; blue mucous membranes and blindness. Should any of these symptoms occur, producers should remove the animals from the feed and contact their veterinarian.