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Six ways to help avoid the ‘silage slump’

DocWhiteDr. Jim White
MFA Director of Nutrition
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Cattle operations commonly experience a decrease in production and performance when they open a new corn silage upright silo, bunker or pile. This phenomenon is known as the “silage slump.” Ensuring the quality of forage fed is an important component to maximizing production, controlling cost and maintaining herd health. New silage slump can hurt these goals. A few best practices for harvesting, storing and feeding silage can help prevent these problems.

1. It is important to ensure proper whole-plant moisture levels when harvesting. If you’re using bunkers and drive-over piles, whole-plant moisture should be 66% to 68%. For vertical structures, aim for 63% to 66% moisture. Regardless of storage method, proper moisture is one of the most important things to remember when harvesting corn silage.

2. Monitor kernel processing and chop length. Kernel-processed corn silage should have a theoretical length between ¾ and 1 inch. Set the spacing on the kernel processors to 1 millimeter. Processing corn silage this way increases the amount of fiber fed because it decreases the sorting of corn cob “hockey pucks” by cows and enables better digestion of the starch in the corn kernel.

3. Pack bunkers carefully. Bunker silos should be packed constantly while filling. The blade tractor operator should ensure that the layer is being packed thinly, no thicker than 6 inches, and that the blade does not interfere with layers that have already been packed. Packing in 4-inch to 6-inch layers increases silage density, reduces oxygen infiltration and subsequent spoilage, and increases storage efficiency.

“Ideally, cattle producers should allow silage to ensile for at least four months before feeding.”

4. Cover silage well. After the silage is packed, cover it as soon as possible, ideally with 6- to 8-mil plastic. Use a secondary oxygen barrier and secure it. It is common to use a second layer of clear plastic that effectively obstructs air flow into the silage. This works great, though you should cover the oxygen barrier with regular plastic to prevent sunlight deterioration. Using this combination approach stops much of the spoilage of corn silage and haylage at the top of the pile. In addition to preventing spoilage loss, this also lessens the need for workers to pitch off spoiled silage, which saves time and reduces risk.

5. Be sure to give silage time to ensile. Ideally, cattle producers should allow silage to ensile for at least four months before feeding. As silage spends additional weeks in storage, the starch becomes more digestible and helps avoid the silage slump. When you do begin feeding from the new silage supply, monitor quality in the first few feet. Many bunkers and corn silage pile have sloped ends, which means silage in the front is not packed as densely as silage deeper in the bunk. This looser packing makes growth of undesirable microbes more likely. Aim to maintain a well-managed face that is vertical or perhaps slightly obtuse and smooth. If there are differences among fermentation, moisture, pH or other characteristics of the silage as the depth into the bunk increases, consider cutting across pile ends and blending multiple depths of silage together, such as silage from 2-, 4-, and 8-foot depths. This can minimize the negative effects of silage slump by diluting potential mycotoxins and reducing the moisture and nutrient variation among silage from different levels.

6. Make efforts to deliver a consistent diet. It’s critical to feed pens as close to the same time every day so dry matter intake stays as consistent as possible. Try to feed within 20 minutes of the previous days’ time. Cows crave consistency. Much like humans, these animals need a structured routine for activities as well as specific nutrition to maximize performance, health and overall well-being.

Read more of the June/July 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine HERE.

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Programs help diversify forage portfolios

Landry Jones Conservation Grazing SpecialistLandry Jones
Conservation Grazing Specialist

We are taught as young adults to diversify risk to reduce exposure to catastrophic loss. For the stock market, that might mean investing in stocks that bring a quicker return as well as investing in options that are more secure but have a longer return on investment. For agriculture, that might mean early planting a percentage of acres in soybeans to try to capture a large yield but also planting the remaining acres at a traditional time to help ensure a successful crop. It may be as simple as not stacking all your hay in one barn for risk of a fire.

With this inherit knowledge of trying to reduce risk, why do we not do the same with our forages? For most producers, we put all our eggs in one basket—the cool-season grass basket. As their name implies, cool-season grasses grow well in the spring and fall, but that leaves out summer, when we still need forage production.

Thankfully, there are several great forage options that thrive in warmer weather. Some of these forages are introduced species that can grow very well in certain parts of Missouri and produce high-quality forage. Some are forages that have adapted to Missouri’s climate and soil over centuries. Collectively, these highly productive adapted grasses are known as native warm-season forages.

Using native grasses for livestock is nothing new. Producers in the Flint Hills of Kansas have been raising cattle on native range for centuries. What is new in Missouri is the increased effort by state government agencies and non-governmental organizations to promote, educate and assist producers with establishing and managing native grasses. The most notable program is the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Native Forage Initiative (NFI). This program was created in 2022 when the southern part of Missouri was in severe drought, and NRCS officials realized producer assistance programs needed smoother, quicker paths to implementation to be effective. Mainly, they wanted to reduce the time it took for producer contracts to be approved and the “lag time” to get work “on the ground” completed so that producers could get a native grass stand as soon as possible. The other goal was to have a program that focused solely on forage production.

“Planting native warm-season grasses is a big investment, but there has never been a better time.”

The NFI program is just this. It was developed to make farms more resilient and productive. Along with the NFI, the Missouri Department of Conservation also pledged its support by adding Supplemental Incentive Payments (SIP) in select geographies across the state.

If you have explored establishing native grasses, you realize it is not a cheap endeavor. The University of Missouri has calculated the return on investment, and most reports show it takes four to five years to return that field to profitability. With financial assistance from the NFI and SIP programs, the return on investment is less than one year.

Due to the accessibility of and acceptance into this program, as well as financial assistance tied to the practices, there has been a record amount of interest from producers to diversify their forages with native grasses. In fiscal year 2023, more than $6.5 million dollars and 14,000 acres were obligated to be converted to native grass. Also, due to the increased interest, the program sign-up deadline has been extended to May 31 of this year.

NRCS and MDC are not the only agencies committed to making farms more resilient and profitable with native grasses. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, through Soil and Water Conservation Districts, now has a program that provides cost-share assistance for converting cool-season forages to native warm-season grasses in a new or existing grazing system.

Planting native warm-season grasses is a big investment, but there has never been a better time. These agencies are putting their money where their mouths are and making it very affordable to establish these grasses and reduce the economic risk to producers. Producers who are interested or have questions about how native grasses can fit into their operation can contact their local USDA office or me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

CLICK TO READ MORE FROM THE 2024 MAY ISSUE OF TODAY'S FARMER MAGAZINE.

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There’s no universal solution for fly control

How well did your fly control program work last year? If control was less than ideal, consider a different method. DrNutritionDr. Jim White
MFA Director of Nutrition
Many options are available to help manage the three species that economically impact cattle: horn flies, face flies and stable flies. While similar in some ways, each type of fly has characteristics that make its control slightly different from the others.

Horn flies are small pests that cause a big concern for livestock producers. Economic losses are estimated at around $1 billion annually in the United States alone. Horn flies feed on blood, irritate the animals and deposit their eggs in fresh manure. In warm weather, horn flies complete their life cycle in 10 to 20 days. Horn flies travel and can go for miles in search of a host. Even with excellent management practices and prompt manure removal, new horn flies might move in.

Horn flies spread summer mastitis, decrease grazing efficiency, reduce weight gains and lower milk production. Studies show mother cows dealing with horn flies have calves with weaning weights 10 to 20 pounds less than animals not under pressure. Horn flies can also cause yearling cattle to weigh up to 18% less.
Despite these issues, aggressive treatment is not always warranted. If horn fly numbers are less than 200 per animal, you should be fine. Above 200 merits additional fly control measures.

To combat horn flies, there are a number of insecticide options and delivery methods. Dust bags and backrubbers/oilers are effective if cattle are forced to use them. Pour-ons and mist-blowers can control horn flies for one to three weeks and will need to be reapplied during fly season. Insecticide eartags can last all season if applied relatively late. If placed earlier, they will need to be reapplied or additional fly control measures will need to be taken mid to late season.
Insect growth regulators are fed through cattle and impact developing larvae in manure. When using IGRs, continual consumption is needed for effective control. A standard MFA product with an IGR is Ricochet FesQ Max Altosid Shield Mineral.

“Each type of fly has characteristics that make its control slightly different from the others.”

Regardless of delivery method, be sure to cycle through insecticides with different modes of action. Prolonged use of one category of insecticide leads to genetic resistance in fly populations.

Face flies closely resemble house flies except they are slightly larger and darker. These nonbiting flies feed on the secretions of cattle and other animals. Female face flies cluster around the animal’s face, especially the mouth and eyes, and can spread pinkeye. With this disease, face flies serve as the vector rather than the infectious agent itself. Economic losses from face flies can be substantial, not only from pinkeye infections but also lowered weight gains and reduced milk production.

Face flies are tricky to control because they spend much of their time off the animal. Producers need a multifaceted control program that includes dust bags, oilers, sprays and insecticide eartags. When using eartags, remember to place them on both adult animals and calves to achieve the desired effects. If pinkeye is a problem, consider vaccinating your herd.

Stable flies are serious pests to dairies, feedlots and pasture cattle. They painfully bite cattle, mainly on the legs, and feed on their blood. Stable flies cause dramatic reductions in daily gain for cattle. While a threshold of 200 horn flies per animal is needed before it becomes economically important to stop them, it only takes five stable flies per animal to cause harm.

Stable flies deposit their eggs in decomposing organic matter. Old manure, urine or waste feed provide a welcoming environment for them. Sanitation and cleanup of wasted feed is the best method to reduce local larval development.

The only adult management option available to control stable flies on range cattle is use of animal sprays. These can be applied using a low-pressure sprayer or mist-blower. Weekly applications will be required to reduce fly numbers.

Visit with the livestock specialists at your MFA or AGChoice location to help plan the best fly control program for the pests that are bugging your operation.

CLICK TO READ MORE FROM THE 2024 MAY ISSUE OF TODAY'S FARMER MAGAZINE.

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Keep baleage from becoming failage

Produced and preserved properly, baleage can be fabulous feed. This fermented forage is packed in large, plastic-wrapped bales, allowing producers to harvest and preserve hay at a higher quality and greater moisture levels. This method offers producers flexibility in the field and allows less time between cutting and storage.
Baleage has many wonderful qualities over dry hay, but it also poses some production challenges. Just like conventional dry hay, putting up high-quality baleage is a function of forage maturity when cut and how it’s subsequently handled during baling and storage. If the bales are too wet or too dry and spoilage occurs, there can be significant losses in value. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Attention to four areas can help make better baleage in terms of quality, stability and profitability.
1. You have to mow when forage is at the right stage of maturity. As forages mature, their crude protein and percentage of total digestible nutrients tend to decline. Dry matter typically increases the longer plants are left growing in the field. If your goal is to get the highest-quality feed possible, harvest earlier in the growth period. If you want more yield, harvest later in the growth stages. It is important to remember that fermentation can’t transform low-quality forage into high-quality forage.

2. Bale at the right moisture levels to ensure that fermentation can occur. In general, the target moisture for baleage is between 45% and 60%. If moisture levels are higher than about 65%, you run the risk of spoilage and low palatability. If moisture levels are lower than 40%, you can end up with mold growth. If you’re pushing the recommended moisture levels, with either too-wet or too-dry forage, wrap those bales as soon as possible with two more layers of polyethylene plastic film to get rid of oxygen and start anaerobic fermentation as soon as possible.

3. Make the bales as dense as possible. With baleage, the denser the bales, the better they do. Higher-density bales have lower pH levels and are more likely to properly ferment the sugars in the forage. The resulting ensiled forage has better quality and feeding value than loosely packed bales. Densely packed bales will also have greater bunk life, spoiling less quickly than poorly packed bales.

4. Wrap bales as soon as you can. For the best baleage, oxygen needs to be eliminated quickly, allowing anaerobic bacteria to appropriately initiate the fermentation process. Use the correct number of wraps of plastic layers and get those on the forage as soon after baling as possible. At a minimum, you should use six layers of 1- to 2-millimeter plastic for each bale, but eight wraps is even better. This is the best way to prevent the internal bale from inappropriately heating to 120°F and beyond. At those temperatures, the protein in the forage can undergo a Maillard reaction, the browning process that happens between amino acids (proteins) and sugars under heat. Hay impacted by Maillard reactions will be sweet-smelling and caramel-colored. While highly palatable, the reaction makes the protein unusable for animal digestion.

For bales to appropriately ferment, it is best to wait six to eight weeks before beginning to feed them. In general, forages baled at 40% to 60% moisture will maintain feed value for about 12 months as long as the plastic is intact. However, even when baled at the appropriate moisture level and the plastic has a minimal amount of holes, it is best to feed baleage within nine months.

Using good management practices while harvesting, baling and storing ensures that you get the most out of this valuable feedstuff. For more information on producing and feeding baleage, check with the agronomy and livestock experts at your local MFA. 

CLICK TO READ the full April 2024 Issue of Today's Farmer magazine.

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Zero equals hero when reducing feed refusals

If you were going on a cross-country road trip and wanted to minimize stops, you could try to go as far as you could on a tank of gas and only stop to refuel once you were on empty. If you timed it just right, you could get to your destination sooner by maximizing efficiency with your fill-ups.

However, for this to work, you’d have to know what you were doing. Being off by a small margin could result in running out of gas on the side of the road, causing delays beyond what you would have experienced from filling up more frequently.

With that analogy in mind, let’s consider feeding for zero refusals. This means an empty feed bunk—the cows are out of feed. This can be terrific if you achieve complete ration disappearance without restricting dry matter intake. Feeding for zero refusals results in minimal feed waste and can maximize income over feed cost. Feeding efficiency is important to overall profitability. Getting the most milk from each pound of ration is also valuable.

However, as in the illustration above, when you run something this close to the edge, getting it wrong can be disastrous. If feeding for zero refusals results in even 1 pound of marginal milk lost, you won’t save much—or anything—from this practice.

Feeding for zero refusals isn’t for everyone. If you have an operation that finds good salvage value in feeding refuses to heifers, if you’re feeding a post-fresh group that has cows entering and leaving daily, or if you aren’t able to have extremely precise feed management, your best bet is probably to stick with the typical goal of 2% to 5% refusal.

“Feeding for zero refusals results in minimal feed waste and can maximize income over feed cost.”

If you are going to try feeding for zero refusals, there are a few important considerations:

Control forage moisture variation. Variations in dry matter of forages, and subsequently the total mixed ration, are easily the largest factor contributing to differences between expected feed intake and actual feed intake. You’ll need to check moisture at least two to three times per week; many zero-refusal programs check moisture daily. There is some variation in testing, so use rolling averages of the moisture tests rather than making dramatic changes daily. If numbers vary widely, determine why and monitor the situation closely so you can take timely corrective action.

If feeding silage, try using a silage defacer. This helps ensure that silage is taken from the entire face of the silo. A bunker silo can have significant moisture variation from one side to the next, so a silage defacer also does a good job of premixing the silage. You can reduce the variation by mixing the forages with the loader bucket after they’ve been taken off the face and piled on the bunker floor.

Account for all the cows in the pen. The feeder needs to know exactly how many cows are in the pen. You need to be able to communicate cattle movements from pen to pen. If cows regularly end up in the wrong pen, it is very unlikely that they’ll have the proper amount of feed.

Be consistent with feed delivery and push-ups. By consistent, I mean, “exactly the same time every day” rather than “meh, sometime in the morning when I get to it.” Cows like consistency. Slight variations in the time of feed delivery, especially if you’re feeding for zero refusals, can result in a loss of milk.

Feed redistribution is important. Frequent feed push-ups reduce the amount of time cows do not have access to feed and the variability in feed refusals. You’ll also need to be good at redistributing the feed. The ration remaining in the feedline should be spread as evenly as possible along the entire length.

Don’t overcrowd cows. Overcrowding makes the penalty for running out of feed more severe. Less-dominant cows will be most affected because they won’t be able to eat at the same time as the dominant cows. If you have overcrowding and empty bunks, you run the risk of much higher levels of subacute rumen acidosis.

Determine what your current refusal rate is before trying to get to zero refusals. If you’re at 5% refusals now, consider going to 2.5% refusals and evaluate what happens. The objective is to learn what needs to be done to avoid empty feed bunks prior to achieving zero refusals.

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