Corn Silage: Good wintertime feed

By : Terri Queck-Matzie

Corn silage can be a good feedstuff for cattle through the winter months.

“Silage can provide a tremendous amount of energy,” says Eric Bailey, University of Missouri Extension beef specialist and assistant professor of animal science. The feeding option was the subject of his presentation last January at the Three-State Beef Conference, sponsored by University of Missouri, Iowa State  University and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, held in Savannah, Missouri, Greenfield, Iowa, and Syracuse, Nebraska.

From breeding cows to backgrounder calves, silage can help meet nutrient requirements and provide needed roughage.

“Many people ask if they need to also feed hay,” says Bailey. The answer is “no” unless there are nitrate issues. Drought stressed corn silage should be nitrate tested. “Otherwise,” Bailey says, “good silage can be around 50% roughage and 50% grain.”

The silage is adequate for most cow needs, although Bailey says its value as a feed may be wasted on non-lactating cows. “Silage can be put to better use. To be the most cost effective, save the silage for lactating and growing cattle.”

He says the basic diet for cattle is a relatively simple recipe. “You need forage for the rumen, grain for energy density, a protein supplement, and a vitamin and mineral balancer. If you have those components, it’s really a slam dunk.”

For calves, producers may find it necessary to add protein. For a simple ration, Bailey recommends 9 parts silage to 1 part dried distillers grain (as fed) to raise the crude protein to 13.5%. This needs to be checked against lab analyses on your feeds to be fine-tuned. Silage also makes a good supplement to pasture, hay or crop residue.

“Just remember,” says Bailey, “Silage is an energy supplement, not a replacement for protein supplements.”

Effect of feeding spoiled corn silage on intake and nutrient digestibility in steers.

Percent spoiled
silage in ration
Percent spoiled
silage in ration
Percent spoiled
silage in ration
Percent spoiled
silage in ration
Item 0 25 50 75
Dry matter intake, lb/day 17.5 16.2 15.3 14.7
Digestibility, %
Dry matter 74.4 68.9 67.2 66.0
Crude protein 74.6a 70.5b 68.0bc 62.8
ADF 56.1 43.2 41.3 40.5

Source: Whitlock, et al. 2000. Kansas Ag. Exp. Stn. Progress Rpt. 850.

Handle it right

In his work as an extension beef specialist, Bailey often gets requests for him to develop a ration that will solve all of a feeder’s issues. “There is no ‘perfect’ ration,” says Bailey. “Some producers think if they are blessed with a perfect ration the cows will get fat, the calves will gain 3 lbs. a day and make $150 per head. But the ration is only a small portion of the total picture. HOW you feed is just as important as WHAT you feed.”

How cattle are fed includes when they are fed, how facilities are managed and how feed is stored.

Storing and handling silage is key to its effectiveness as a nutrient supply.

Silage must be stored properly. “I’ve seen producers not used to handling and feeding silage buy from the neighbor down the road, pile it loosely, and use it over 3 or 4 weeks. That is far from ideal.”

“Oxygen is not a friend of silage. It should be exposed as little as possible,” Bailey continues. Moldy silage can be fed, but even a little mold will reduce feed intake and can reduce digestibility by as much as 28%. He recommends taking six inches off the face of the pile or pit every day to minimize spoilage.

Bunk management is also essential. Dry feed can sit in the bunk for a few days, but moist silage cannot. Bunks should be cleaned daily before fresh feed is offered.

Silage should be fed at around 65% moisture. When held in the hand, silage with 60-70% moisture should fall apart slowly with no juice. If it holds its shape with some juice, it contains around 70-75% moisture. If there is considerable juice, the moisture level is above 75%. If the silage falls apart rapidly, moisture is below 60%.

How much should they eat?

If feeding to cows, Bailey says feed should be offered according to their nutrient requirements, not their appetites. “A 1400 lb. cow will eat up to 100 lbs. of silage a day when they only require 60 lbs. (on an as fed basis), assuming 35% dry matter.”

Meanwhile, a growing calf can’t get enough to eat. “The more calves eat, the more calves gain,” says Bailey.

He says he often hears concerns about feeding cattle too hard and causing them to get fleshy, but he has received no feedyard feedback on that being a problem, and finds it is easy to underestimate the genetic progress of cattle the past several years and their potential for growth and weight gain. “That applies to cattle from all ends of the spectrum from unknown to high-end genetics.”

How much a calf eats in a day is also key to profitability, even with silage being a relatively low cost alternative. Silage costs roughly 10 times per ton what corn costs.  At $40 per ton and 65% moisture, that’s $115 per ton for dry matter. “That doesn’t begin to compare to anything else,” says Bailey.

“So if a calf eats 13 lbs. of dry matter a day, he’ll gain just over 2 lbs. per day,” he continues. “If you can get him to eat 17-18 lbs. per day, he’ll gain around 3 lbs. Meanwhile, the yardage days and other fixed costs remain the same.”

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