Northeastern dairy farmers are in for an unusually drawn-out corn silage harvest season that could stretch deep into October.
In most years, farmers can put up their silage within six weeks starting in late August.
But spring planting delays put this year’s crop well behind schedule, and many stands may not be harvestable until a killing frost.
“It’s all over the board because planting’s all over the board,” said R. Mark Sulc, an Ohio State Extension forage specialist based in Columbus.
Ohio faced excessive rain from last fall through early this summer. Even though conditions have dried out since then, the damage is done.
As rain continued past ideal corn planting windows, farmers began to adjust.
Casey Guindon, a Penn State Extension educator in Bradford County, saw a lot of interest in corn with incredibly short maturities — 85, even 75 days.
Farmers in this county on the New York border don’t usually go shorter than 95 days, she said.
In Ohio, many farmers planted short-season crops like sorghum sudangrass and oats in place of corn. Others may reach deals to harvest cover crops planted by grain farmers, Sulc said.
There could be lots of cover crop acres available because so many acres didn’t get planted to grain as planned.
Between flooding and excessive rain, forage production has been so bad this year that USDA moved up by two months the date farmers can start harvesting cover crops on prevented planting acres.
Farmers can make silage, haylage or balage starting Sept. 1 this year and still be eligible for their full 2019 prevented planting indemnity.
Ohio had 1.5 million prevented planting acres this year, New York 250,000, and Pennsylvania 46,000. Those numbers are way up from this time in 2018.
In New York, farmers generally start harvesting around Labor Day and harvest through most of September. This year, the early silage won’t come off till late September, said Joe Lawrence, a Cornell University dairy forage systems specialist.
Assuming good weather, the timely plantings should yield fairly well. But up to 40% of the crop might need a killing frost to dry it down sufficiently, Lawrence said.
When silage is put up too wet, it can ferment poorly, and the liquid can overwhelm leachate collection systems.
Of course, when the frost does come, all of the late fields are going to hit the right dryness at the same time.
“It’s going to be a huge management challenge,” Sulc said.
To make matters worse, very little corn was planted in time to assure it will make grain harvest. Some was planted with the relaxed prevented planting rule in mind.
“We don’t even expect that (corn) to make an ear,” Lawrence said.
The yield potential for those arrested-development plantings is fairly poor. A mature ear contributes half the dry matter of the silage crop.
The protracted silage harvest worsens the feed shortage that many farmers already face after bad weather last year and this spring.
A lot of Ohio dairy farmers follow their silage with a rye cover crop, which is a good source of feed the following spring.
This year, though, farmers might not have enough time to plant cover crops after they take off their late silage. “We’ll just have to see,” Sulc said.
Many New York farms got a big but low quality first cutting of hay this year, so Lawrence has encouraged farmers to focus on quality for the later cuttings, even if they sacrifice a little yield.
With so much potential variation in silage quality, farmers should think carefully about where they will store this year’s crop.
The immature, frost-killed corn — suitable for heifers and dry cows — shouldn’t be mixed with the better stuff destined for lactating cows, Lawrence said.
When putting up silage, the goal is to get the pH down quickly and start up lactic acid fermentation. That process results in the most stable product with a high energy and nutrient content, Guindon said.
Bacterial inoculants can jump-start that process and are especially helpful if the silage is harvested a little wet — something that might happen this year, she said.
With forage prices high, the money saved by reducing shrink with inoculants is greater than normal, said William Weiss, an Ohio State Extension forage specialists based in Wooster.
Studies are inconsistent on the value of inoculants in frosted silage.
Some show no effect, while others indicate that the bacteria help. The low temperatures may reduce the effectiveness of inoculants, but at the very least, they’re not going to hurt the crop, Weiss said.
Frosted silage can make good feed, but farmers need to monitor their moisture to make sure the whole plants, not just the dying leaves, have dried enough to harvest.
“Looks can be deceiving,” Weiss said.
A few other factors can affect silage quality as harvest approaches.
Because the spring was so wet, the plants may not have put down deep roots. That makes them vulnerable in a prolonged dry period late in the growing season, Lawrence said.
Farmers should also do some disease scouting, Guindon said. At high levels, gray leaf spot can cause standability issues in brown midrib varieties.