The absolute hardest part of solving a problem is figuring out what the actual problem is in the first place. Transition is poor, is it the ration, the feeder, not enough days in the close-up pen, overcrowding or something else? Each of these answers requires a totally different solution. Poor udder health, is it the milking procedure, the milkers themselves, equipment, or environment? Again each situation requires lots of attention and all requiring a different solution.

For this exercise I would like to look at improving forage quality. There are very few dairies that don’t have any room to improve in this area. Since corn silage is generally the forage that occupies the most space in many rations, let’s troubleshoot improving the quality of corn silage. By improving quality we are talking about better NDF digestibility, better starch digestibility and higher levels of starch. In almost all cases improving quality will also improve yield. There are five key times that management can influence quality, hybrid selection, planting, 4 to 5 leaf stage (V4), grain filling, and harvest.

Growing a healthy crop of corn has many similarities to raising replacements and getting them into the milking herd successfully. The first step is picking the genetics for your next crop. There are huge differences in corn genetics pertaining to digestibility of NDF and starch. Every dairy, or better yet groups of dairies, should evaluate varieties for not only yield, but also quality. By comparing varieties as they come to the pit, you can identify the ones you want to plant next year. There are varieties that are better designed for silage than others.

Step two is at planting. There are two keys to getting the corn plant up and running. Maximize the use of soil microbes and use a good starter fertilizer. The soil and the rumen of a cow both are completely dependent on the microbes (bugs) that live in them. Tons of manure, while necessary for environmental compliance, is not necessarily the best for maintaining optimum bug population. The salts applied with the manure are detrimental to optimum microbial activity. There are additives that can be added to the soil to help alleviate this problem and maximize the benefits of soil microbes.

Using a good starter fertilizer is similar to feeding a calf colostrum. If you get the corn (or calf) off to a great start, the rest is much easier. A good starter fertilizer does two things, supplies the seedling micronutrients it need to grow in a harsh environment and stimulates the microbial population to provide nutrients to the plant. Starters containing molasses feed the microbes and help get the seedling off and running.

Step three is at the 4-5-leaf stage or V4. At this time tissue samples should be analyzed to asses nutrient needs. Nitrogen and micronutrient supplementation can be recommended and applies. This is also a good time to apply a fungicide. A fungicide at this stage of growth is similar to vaccinating heifers. There may not be problems occurring, but this sets up the corn plant to be healthier as it heads into maybe the most important part of its life.

Step four is during grain filling. The most critical aspects during this time are plenty of water and plenty of nitrogen.

Step five is harvest. Unfortunately this step can and often does, wipe out many of the good practices performed in the other four steps. Timing fields so they are chopped at 35-40% dry matter, proper kernel processing, and an inoculant that will not only provide the best fermentation, but also add to the digestibility with enzymes. We want to harvest so that we maximize our starch yield and provide the correct moisture for optimum fermentation. This is around 35-40% dry matter. Hopefully no one needs to be reminded about the importance of kernel processing. The inoculant should provide bugs to aid in fermentation, but also enzymes to maximize digestibility. Enzyme technology will become an extremely important part of how we feed cows in the future. Right now we know enough to be able to increase starch and NDF digestibility in silage.

By looking through these five steps, maybe you can find missing pieces to your forage quality puzzle. If you have any questions on any of these technologies, please contact us; we have the experts to answer all of your questions!