With the challenges of getting crops planted this year, many farmers are likely weighing their options and reconsidering their planting intentions. For producers who can market feedstuffs through livestock (particularly cattle), it may be premature to completely abandon corn simply due to calendar dates, explained Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension beef feedlot management associate.
“The key difference in marketing corn through cattle, compared to cash grain marketing, is that it isn’t absolutely necessary to dry down the crop, provided producers have a way to handle high moisture feeds,” Rusche said.
Because crop dry down isn’t a concern, Rusche said producers don’t need to worry about risk of an early frost or an extended dry down period. They can also eliminate the shrink and cost associated with drying corn.
“Harvesting the corn crop as a high-moisture feedstuff gives a producer three different options, harvest windows, and eventual feed uses,” said Rusche.
From a calendar standpoint, the options from earliest to latest are corn silage, high-moisture ear corn (also called earlage or snaplage), and high moisture shelled corn.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota studied the differences in gross return per acre for the three options listed above, alongside dry corn when marketed and fed through yearling steers.
The Minnesota group found that taking all factors into consideration, there were no differences between the harvest methods in gross return per acre or in equivalent value of the corn crop in dollars per bushel.
“This research suggests producers are not necessarily locked into one harvest method if they have the option to market grain through livestock,” Rusche said.
For most producers, corn silage may be the most versatile and most familiar option.
Corn silage can be a primary roughage source for both beef cow and backgrounding diets. Corn silage can also be utilized as a roughage source in cattle finishing diets with a range of inclusion rates, depending upon desired rates of gain and/or the relative abundance and costs of other feedstuffs.
One of the key advantages of corn silage is the availability of equipment and know-how to harvest and store the crop effectively.
High-moisture ear corn
High-moisture ear corn has become more popular in recent years, especially with cattle feeders.
The cob and husk portion of the ear serves as a roughage source, which may eliminate the need for additional hay or silage.
Earlage should be harvested at about 35-40 percent moisture. Letting the crop get too dry is usually the greatest challenge with earlage. The most common harvest method is a snapper head attached to a silage chopper.
High-moisture shelled corn
High-moisture corn is typically harvested with a moisture content of approximately 24-34 percent. Like high-moisture ear corn, harvesting too dry leads to greater spoilage and reduced feed value.
The advantage to high-moisture corn is it can be harvested with the same equipment used to harvest dry corn. Adding some method of grain processing such as grinding or rolling, to the last step before storage, improves fermentation, especially if stored in a bunker or pile because it increases pack density and removal of oxygen.
What about low-test-weight corn? It is often assumed that the book feed value of light-test-weight corn is lower than normal corn. However, South Dakota State University research indicates light-test-weight corn actually had net energy values 15 percent greater than normal-weight corn. It is more similar to values expected for steam-flaked or high-moisture corn.
“If lighter test weights are observed in this fall’s corn crop, cattle feeders need to not mistakenly reduce roughage content in the belief that light-test-weight corn is lower energy and poses less acidosis risk,” Rusche said.
How does the harvest windows change higher-moisture crops?
A key difference between harvesting dry corn compared to corn silage, high-moisture ear corn and high-moisture shelled corn, is that while harvest can begin sooner, if the crop dries down below the recommended window, storage losses rapidly increase.
“Producers need to be prepared to go as soon as the window for that particular feedstuff opens,” Rusche said.
It may not be logistically possible for one farm to use all three methods in any one year. Planting a range of corn maturities (plus/minus five days from average) should extend harvest windows by reducing the risk of every field reaching the same moisture content at the same time.
What about marketing and insurance?
Another challenge with these harvest methods is that once committed, there is only one market alternative available; marketing the grain through cattle fed or selling to someone else with livestock.
Establishing a price for these feedstuffs is not as straightforward as checking an elevator or ethanol plant bid for dry corn. Finally, crop insurance, planting dates, and proving yields have to be considered as part of a whole farm risk management strategy. — South Dakota State University Extension