Let’s be clear on one thing: corn silage is the main source of feed for the dairy industry. Granted, many individual farmers feed little or no corn silage, but the lion’s share of milk and cheese-derived nutrients got their start somewhere in a cornfield. For better or for worse, that’s how it is.
Even with its status at the top of the dairy totem pole, I’ve always found it odd that corn silage has struggled to find a place in the industry. Perhaps part of this identity problem has to do with its history, and part can be attributed to its inherent makeup. Let me explain.
Corn silage has been harvested for decades, but it’s really only been in the last 20-25 years that corn has been bred and grown with the explicit intention of harvesting for silage. For many years, there was no distinction between a grain hybrid and a silage hybrid. The rallying cry was, “The best cereal hybrids make the best silage hybrids.
Since the 1990s, digestibility has been the focus; kernel processors have become commonplace, even necessary; seed companies have devoted part of their breeding efforts to the development of silage-specific hybrids; and there has been targeted research into the optimal ways to produce and feed corn silage.
Even with these advancements, corn silage as we know it today was late to the party. A few seed companies have invested heavily in the breeding and development of corn silage, but these efforts pale in comparison to the resources devoted to corn-grain hybrids and, in many cases, traditional forage crops like alfalfa.
At the university level, corn silage was considered even less. The number of corn silage “experts” one can find in state universities would barely fill a small lecture hall, altogether. Much of the research is done by nutritionists, not agronomists. From this last point of view, who gets the corn silage, the fodder or the corn? In many universities it is neither.
Acreage-wise, corn silage pales in comparison to grain corn, alfalfa, and other forage crops, making it a minor crop overall, but a top crop. in the dairy industry. However, unlike perennial forage, corn silage growers must purchase seed every year, making hybrid breeding efforts more worthwhile.
When I worked as a county extension agronomist in Wisconsin, we had a county forage board. The council has been an asset in helping to provide resources to deliver education programs and on-farm research or demonstrations. I quickly learned that a meeting should either focus on conventional dairy farmers or pasture operations. If I offered a mixed program, no group would participate because half of the program would not be relevant.
These breeders had their own identity: conventional dairy or pasture dairy. The identity of corn silage is that of a mixed bag, being an equal distribution of grain and silage on a dry matter basis. Interestingly, our industry sees it primarily as fodder. For example, when we talk about the percentage of forage in the ration, most nutritionists and farmers include all corn silage in this calculation.
Let’s illustrate this with an example:
A food ration is balanced for 60 pounds of dry matter. The ration includes 26 pounds of corn silage and 10 pounds of alfalfa. Virtually everyone in the industry will proclaim this to be a 60% forage ration (36 divided by 60). But is it?
Half of the corn silage – 13 pounds – is grain, which actually makes our ration about 38% forage, which isn’t exactly a “high forage” diet.
It is corn silage’s unique contribution as a forage and grain feed that makes it attractive as a feed. It is this same attribute that often leaves it without an industrial home.
A magazine called Hay and forage producer offer corn silage information? Of course, but we will try to stick mainly to our 50% of the harvest.