Make the most of corn silage; figure all the angles
Raising corn silage was a struggle in early spring for the Phillips brothers. The weather just wouldn’t cooperate on Northpointe Farm, their operation in Augusta County, Va. It was hot and dry in March, and cold, damp and wet in April, just when they needed to plant corn.
“The ground stayed colder longer than normal,” Daniel says, “which makes it hard to germinate.”
Daniel, Kevin, Winston and Wilmer raise 750 milking cows and grow about 1,000 acres of corn on their 3,000-acre farm — 1,500 acres of which they own and 1,500 acres of which they rent.
Milk cows are on three dairies. The Phillipses chop about 20,000 tons of corn silage and 3,000 tons of earlage (ensiled corn grain, and cobs that sometimes include husks and parts of stalks). Any corn left is shelled. They feed everything they harvest back to the cows. The brothers appreciate hay reserves, too.
“Two years ago on the 10th, we started feeding the hay in July and didn’t quit until April,” Kevin says. “We really got rid of our surplus. His philosophy is “more is better.”
• Corn silage is a valuable commodity on this dairy farm — for feed.
• Plant population is a key to production improvements.
• Kevin Phillips prefers to plant into cool soil, about 1 inch deep.
“If we don’t feed it this year, it’ll keep until next year,” he says. “And I don’t sell it. When you’ve got as many cattle as we have, it’s about like having money in the bank to have feed reserves. We try to get every dollar out of every acre we can.”
This year, though, was a challenge at the beginning of the season. Kevin notes not being able to plant on time is one of the most challenging aspects of raising corn for silage. He says, “From the 15th of April to the 25th of May, we just didn’t have much window of opportunity to be in the fields … I would normally be done by the 5th of May. So it was really challenging.
“That’s weather; that’s just the way it is and the way farming is. You go with the punches and try to get everything done as timely as possible.”
A delay in planting means the brothers are doing their work later in the fall. They will be lucky to sow their cover-grain crops on time, and that may change if Mother Nature decides they need dry weather instead of seasonable, rainy weather. Kevin says the part of Shenandoah Valley where he lives tends to be dry. He estimates the area averages about 30 to 35 inches of rain a year. The difficult thing is, he never knows when that rain will come.
Last year rains arrived early, then fell off from July through August. The corn grew tall, but without ears. As a result, Kevin and his brothers fed a lot of extra grain, to keep up the milk production of their cows.
“On the corn crop, you’d rather it be dry early and wet later, because even if corn doesn’t get but so tall, you get a good ear out of it. And that’s more than half the tonnage.”
When Kevin plants corn, he prefers to plant earlier and shallower than some other farmers. “I don’t plant as deep as a lot of people do because the ground temperature is not quite there,” he says. “The top of the soil is a little bit warmer.”
Kevin estimates it takes 55 degrees F to germinate seed corn, but he prefers to plant when the ground temperature is 50 to 52 degrees F. A lot of farmers plant 2 inches deep, but he stops at 1 inch. He got a good stand early on.
To raise good corn silage, Daniel says the nutrients must be in the field. It all starts with a good plant stand, and that means the correct plant population is critical.
In the 1990s, the Phillips brothers went to a 15-inch row when sowing their corn, vs. a 30-inch row. But Kevin notes the seed corn wasn’t right for it at that time. Two years ago, they revisited the 15-row concept, and it worked out.
“We just think we get better yield,” Daniel says. “If you’ve got a 30-inch row and you’ve got a population of 27,000 or 28,000 per acre, you’ll have a plant every 4 inches. If you can plant a 15-inch row and have a population of 42,000 or 43,000 per acre, it’ll have a plant every foot, but you’re utilizing more of the space in the field. Even though you’re increasing the total plants per acre by 20% or 30%, the plants aren’t as close together.”
The additional space between plants allows additional sunlight to come in for more effective growth, Daniel says, and the canopy covers the corn plants more quickly because they are growing faster. Of course, that helps with weed control, and it utilizes fertilizer better in the middle of the row bed.
Kevin points out that 15-inch rows allow the corn to emerge within 25 to 27 days. That fast emergence produces a better canopy.
“We’re excited about it, especially on our irrigated ground where we can really push,” he says. “We’re hoping that we’re going to be able to get to the place we can average 35 tons of corn silage an acre. The goal is 40, but it all depends on Mother Nature. We’re going to experiment working with brands of corn to see which does better on narrower runs.”
They are still experimenting. Kevin noted there is some chance they will eventually split the difference in row width between 15- and 30-inch rows, and perhaps end up with 20-inch rows instead.
Womack writes from Danville, Va.
This article published in the August, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.