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Drought-stricken corn provides viable forage

Written by Gayle Smith
As feed supplies continue to diminish, cattle producers may want to look at drought-stricken corn to fill some of their supplemental feeding needs. However, corn suffering from the drought may have higher nitrate levels, so University of Nebraska Beef Specialist Rick Rasby recommends taking samples of the final product to make sure its safe to feed.
    During a presentation earlier this week, Rasby discussed options for harvesting droughted-out corn from putting it up as silage, harvesting it for hay, green chopping it or even grazing it. No matter which way corn is harvested, producers should test the corn for nitrates and make sure they understand the results when they come back from the laboratory.
Corn options
    If possible, Rasby said the best way to utilize drought-stricken corn as forage is to have it put up as silage. The corn will need to be 35 percent dry matter and 65 percent moisture to pack well and ferment properly.
    “If it’s too wet, it will seep,” Rasby said. “If it’s too dry, it will be fluffy and not pack well.”
    He recommended the chopper head be set four to eight inches off the ground to avoid the bottom of the stalk, where the highest level of nitrates are located. During the fermentation process, research has shown nitrates to reduce by 30 to 60 percent, so some producers don’t set the chopper head higher because of that reduction.
    “You still want to put it up right,” Rasby said. “When you open up the pile, I would recommend testing it for quality and nitrates before feeding it.”
 “Silage is still the best option for droughted-out cornfields, because it will reduce the nitrates in the corn,” he added.
    Another alternative is to green chop the corn, but Rasby recommends feeding it right away.
    “It may be best to feed it in the morning, so you can watch the cattle,” he said.
    If the corn heats up in a pile during the day, the nitrates can turn into nitrites, which are 10 times more toxic to cattle.
Corn for hay and grazing
    For some producers, harvesting droughted-out corn isn’t an option, but they may be able to put it up as hay. Putting up corn as hay can be a challenge, Rasby said, but it is possible.
    During swathing, he recommends producers crimp the hay to help with the dry-down process. He also encourages producers to set the swather head at least eight inches off the ground to avoid the nitrates in the bottom of the stalk. Then, make sure the corn is dried down properly before it is baled, so the bale doesn’t heat up and mold.
    “You want to do it right, so you have a good final product,” he explained.
    Grazing droughted corn is also an option, but more management will be needed to keep the cattle safe. Rasby said the field should be divided into smaller areas with electric fence so there is only enough grazing for a few days. This will prevent a valuable feed source from being trampled, he explained.
    Ranchers also need to make sure the cattle are full before they are turned into the field for the first time. Limit the amount of time the cattle are allowed to graze until they adjust to grazing the field. Acidosis and foundering can be concerns if the corn has ears and the ears are filling, he said.     
    It is also important to provide the cattle with plenty of water and move them before they start eating the base of the stalks to manage nitrate concerns, he added.
Alternative forages
    Stockmen can also graze droughted-out summer forages like millet, sudangrass, oats and field peas. Rasby said grazing summer annuals is similar to grazing droughted-out corn. Producers will want to make sure the cattle are full before turning them out, and limit how much they eat until they adjust to it.
    He also encourages producers to resist grazing the base of the stalks to avoid nitrate problems, and make sure the plants are 18 to 24 inches tall to avoid problems with prussic acid. Rasby said field wilting can decrease prussic acid 50 to 70 percent, but levels can increase in new growth and after a rain.
    Anhydrous can be added to low quality forages like wheat or oat straw or cornstalks to improve digestibility 10 percent and intake by 15 to 20 percent. The forage must be covered and sealed, and anhydrous can then be piped into the bales at three percent of the total weight of the straw. Rasby said the outdoor temperature will determine how long the pile will need to be covered.
Secure winter feed supplies now
    Producers should be taking inventory of feeds they have available and purchasing any additional supplies they may need sooner rather than later, Rasby recommended. Supplies are diminishing daily, and prices are increasing on any available supplies, he added.
    He also suggested producers find ways to feed as efficiently as possible.
    “With feed this expensive, eliminate waste any way you can,” he recommended.
    Waste can vary from five to 35 percent, depending upon the method of delivery to the cattle, he continued. “Make sure to account for feed losses when you are developing your feeding programs.”
    In a worst-case scenario, Rasby shared a chart (seen below) with hay that costs $110 a ton. At a 25 percent feed loss, he determined that the producer would lose $1,572 per 20 cows fed.
    “This year, it is very important to prevent waste,” he explained. “Find a way to get those feeds into the cattle with as little waste as possible.”
    Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..