Planning for Silage Success

Silage harvest is already underway in some locations, but if you haven’t began cutting, planning for your harvest now can make for a much more smooth and successful harvest.  We’ve discussed storage site selection, but we can plan now for packing, quality assessment, and covering.

Energy from corn silage when grain is produced comes in a large part from the grain itself, specifically starch set down in the kernel.  While drought stressed corn without ears can produce silage with energy levels 80-90% of normal, that energy is primarily still in sugar in the stalk.  When grain is present, the outer seed covering contains the kernel and protects the starch inside, even from digestion by our livestock.  To counteract this, many modern choppers are fitted with a kernel processer; two opposing, ridged cylinders that roll and physical crush or damage the grain and stalks, improving digestibility.  Setting these rollers at the right distance apart is critical.  Similarly, machines that are able to adjust chop length can influence the ability to pack a pile as well as digestibility of the final product.

While a lab tests can tell us about problems after the fact, keeping an eye on the pile as loads come in can catch issues early and allow for adjustments.  Give someone the job to watch and sample silage as it comes in.  Chop length can be easily monitored and adjusted if needed.  We can also assess moisture of the product coming in and packing efficiency. 

65-70% moisture is the optimum moisture level to shoot for quality silage.  Drought impacted crops can often be deceptive, looking dryer than they actually are, so running a sample before chopping can be helpful to determine true moisture levels.  When packing, keep the 800 rule in mind.  Multiply the number of tons dumped per hour by 800 to determine the weight needed to properly pack a pile.  Try to keep each level at 6-4 inches of new material to properly get it packed.

To check kernel processing, grab a 32 oz. cup and at least once an hour, grab a sample from the pile.  Spread the sample out on a flat surface and go through looking for kernels.  A card table out of the way but near the pile is a great option here.  Count all the kernels that are uncrushed.

The goal is to have 2 or fewer kernels in your count.  Anything over that and we need to notify the chopper to adjust the processing rollers.

For those who don’t have access to a kernel processer, keeping chop length short can help accomplish similar results.  Typically ¾ inch cut length is the sweet spot for choppers running a processor in terms of fiber particle size for the ration.  Shortening that down to 3/8 inch for machines without a processor will do more kernel damage and maintain similar fiber particles.  For those who don’t have to worry about particle size, mostly our beef producers, dropping down to ½ inch will damage even more kernels and provide benefits for getting a good pack.

Finally, get a plan together now for covering the pile.  If you go through all the work to harvest at the right moisture, pack correctly, and put up a quality silage but don’t cover, it’s just like running a marathon and quitting in the last 500 yards.  Even just a single layer of plastic can reduce dry matter losses by 40%, improve stability, and preserve quality.  Yes it’s labor intensive and a pain at feed out, but it’s worth it.

Planning for silage harvest is critical for success, but just developing the plan doesn’t help if it isn’t followed through.  Figure out now who will be responsible for checking things like kernel processing, packing, and moisture.  How often will these be checked? If something is off, how will information get back to the chopper?  A plan without follow-through helps no one. 

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: