With the challenges of getting crops planted this year many farmers are likely weighing their options and re-considering their planting intentions. For producers that can market feedstuffs through livestock (particularly cattle), it may be premature to completely abandon corn simply due to calendar dates.
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 one has a way to handle high moisture feeds. That reduces the risk of an early frost or an extended dry down period and eliminate s the shrink and cost associated with drying corn.
Corn Feedstuff Options
Harvesting the corn crop as a high-moisture feedstuff gives a producer three different options, harvest windows, and eventual feed uses. 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 these three options 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 suggests that producers are not necessarily locked into one harvest method if they have the option to market grain through livestock.
Corn silage may be the most versatile and most familiar option to most producers. Corn silage can be a primary roughage sources 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 for 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 is becoming 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 to 40% moisture; letting the crop get too dry is usually the biggest 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 to 34 percent. Just like high moisture ear corn, harvesting too dry leads to greater spoilage and reduced feed value. The advantage to high-moisture corn is that it can be harvested with the same equipment used to harvest dry corn, although adding some method of grain processing (grinding or rolling) as the last step before storage improves fermentation, especially if stored in a bunker or pile by increased 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, SDSU research indicated that light test weight corn actually had net energy values 15% greater than normal weight corn, 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.
How does the harvest windows change higher-moisture crops?
A key difference between harvesting dry corn versus any of these three options 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; it may not be logistically possible for one farm to use all three methods in any one year. Planting a range of corn maturities (± 5 d 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 through cattle fed on that farm or selling to someone else with livestock. Establishing a price for these feedstuffs is also 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.