Plan Now for 2019 Harvest

Six factors to consider while the 2018 harvest is still fresh in your mind. ( Elsburgh Clarke )

Excellent forage quality is a critical foundation for any dairy looking to produce a large quantity of milk with good components to generate a profit-able margin. Forage quality drives cow performance, cow health and financial performance. Corn silage in particular is of importance because it will comprise one-third or more of many rations.

The 2018 corn silage harvest in the Midwest has proven to be one of the more difficult in recent memory. Significant challenges have resulted in feed quality that’s less than desirable. Although many would prefer to forget the challenges of the 2018 crop season, now is also the perfect time to gather your forage team together, review the harvest season and reflect on what went well and what areas of opportunity exist.

Some factors are out of your control (i.e., Mother Nature), yet there are also several areas you can change. Here are a few challenges and areas of opportunity I’ve noticed over the past couple months:

1) Plant maturity at harvest:

Many dairies will be saddled with feeding corn silage that might be as dry as 40% dry matter or worse. Hot and dry weather resulted in corn silage drying down quickly and catching dairies by surprise, while wet weather resulted in field conditions forcing harvest delays. Ask your harvest team—do you have an adequate system in place for monitoring whole-plant moisture in the field as the plant matures? Does the monitoring protocol need to be tweaked to more closely watch maturities?

My suggestion is have a person on the dairy solely responsible for cutting representative corn stalks from the field, use a wood chipper to process and use Koster testers or send to a forage testing lab to determine dry matter. Repeat this several times per week in several fields as harvest approaches to get an accurate read on plant maturities. Visual appraisals of plants and corn kernels—while it provides supporting evidence—does not tell the whole story.

2) Kernel processing:

Due to the large variations in corn silage moisture, monitoring kernel processing might have taken a backseat to simply getting corn silage off the field and into the bunker. Who’s responsible for watching kernel processing?

My recommendation is to have a person committed to looking at kernel processing several times per day. Consider sending several samples to the lab throughout harvest to objectively determine kernel processing scores.

3) Harvesting digestible fiber:

Did you reach your fiber digestibility goals? Fiber digestibility is key to driving cow performance. Review the factors that influence fiber digestibility and determine which ones you could improve on—selection of corn silage varieties and agronomic factors, for example.

4) Mycotoxin contamination:

This year might have some mycotoxin presence. Although Mother Nature has a huge influence on the mycotoxin load in corn silage, consider the factors you can control. Consider applying fungicide and harvesting at the correct maturity. Once in the bunker, reduce storage mycotoxin proliferation by using a well-researched inoculant, packing the bunker as tightly as possible and limiting the oxygen exposure by sealing the feed with plastic, tires or other means.

5) On-farm logistics:

The rapid dry-down of silage and hustle and bustle of harvest season left many dairies with challenging on-farm logistics. Questions to review with your team: How fast did feed come in this year? How many pack tractors do we need? Who’s going to drive the tractors? Is the equipment well-maintained? How quickly and effectively can we seal the pile when finished? By discussing this with your team, you might find a few areas that could be improved.

6) Safety:

Most importantly, take a few minutes to review safety protocols during harvest. These could include mandatory high-visibility apparel, limiting cellphone use while operating equipment, keeping roads clean and responsible operation of trucks and equipment. While you can’t control Mother Nature, taking a moment to reflect on harvest might identify areas where improvement leads to producing high-quality feed.


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Robb Bender is a consultant with GPS Consulting, providing independent whole-farm management consulting to diaries in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest.