With $6.50 per bushel of corn, corn silage is worth considerably more per ton today relative to five years ago. Using a multiplier of 10 times the value per bushel for corn grain nets a $65 per ton price for corn silage into the bunker for Midwestern and Eastern dairies. That’s the value at 65% moisture in areas with good growing conditions. For those under drought conditions, expensive land, and high irrigation prices, 2022 corn silage is being inventoried at $125 or more per ton.
Translating these prices into an annual cost/value figure, the 2022 corn silage amounts to the following economic impact for a 500-cow dairy:
- Midwestern and Eastern dairies will have in excess of $375,000* cost/value incurred
- Southern and Western dairies will have in excess of $500,000* cost/value incurred
If you want to further understand financial assumptions, see the bottom of this article. In writing this article, I had to check my math a couple of times. Corn silage carries a mammoth economic footprint for dairy farms these days, and our data-driven decision-making processes here need to reflect the economic impact. To this point, I believe there are substantial opportunities for many dairies.
In my recent Feeding Fundamentals column titled “Nutrition needs data-driven decisions fueled by economics,” Gary Sipiorski and I get into this situation. Feed costs, including purchased and homegrown feed expenses, account for more than 50% of the expenses on farms. Yet, the amount of data available for nutrition-related decisions, including selecting the best seed corn for silage, pales in comparison to the data available for breeding or herd health decisions. As we turn the page to 2023, let's change this matter.
Understanding corn silage’s economic impact heading into 2023, many can do better in selecting and managing corn for silage. Given that seed corn sales season is upon us, let's reflect on experience to highlight how better data can put your farm in position to excel in seed corn selection for silage.
Replicated plot trials are the gold standard
The best yield and quality data come from replicated hybrid plots. For 2023, seek out replicated plot data and consider putting in your own to drive better decision-making. University hybrid programs, seed companies, contract research organizations, and industry-leading dairy farmers are getting this done.
The best data is derived from replication across two different levels: several silage quality samples per location and yield and quality measured over several locations. Different locations can be randomized spots within a fairly uniform field or planting the plot trial at different locations for multi-site farms. If this seems like too much but your farm desires to make a step in this direction in 2023, plant several hybrids side by side in strips within a fairly uniform field to start. Then make several yield and quality measures per strip to aid hybrid evaluation.
Regarding quality analysis, recognize that single forage quality samples are borderline meaningless due to sampling variance. While avoiding the statistics lesson, ensure several forage quality samples are collected per location, do not composite, and average the results for a proper silage quality picture.
This may seem like a lot of work and investment, and that which only a university or seed company can get done. However, over the past few years, I’ve watched several dairy farms from the East to the West take ownership of this space. The farms have planned, and executed, robust replicated hybrid trials on their farms. The outcome has been incredible. Better data has led to uncovering previously hidden yield and quality insights. In one case recently, the expected outcome was flipped upside down with the 2022 outcome proving to be dramatically different than what the dairy had expected.
Words of caution
If a replicated plot or strip trial is not in your future, avoid using bad data to drive decisions on your farm. Over the past decade, I’ve lost count of the number of times where a dairy or nutritionist has asked me to look at a few samples collected during harvest to help pick hybrids.
While I applaud the effort put into collecting samples during harvest, and the intention is genuine, if the hybrids weren’t planted and sampled in the same field, then toss out the data. Experience has shown that soil, agronomic practices, and growing conditions have an incredible impact on yield and quality. The growing environmental impact confounds our ability to compare hybrids grown in different conditions. With that in mind, do not compare results from hybrids grown in different fields. This is bad data and will potentially drive decisions in the wrong direction.
The best data is energy yield per dollar
Take yield results, corrected for dry matter, and multiply dry matter yield by total digestible nutrient (TDN) concentration per ton determined from your quality analyses in conjunction with your nutritionist. The TDN yield per acre is a rock-solid metric to compare hybrids, but we can also account for crop production cost per acre. Different hybrid types may require different crop protection strategies in addition to different seed costs. Take these added cost investments into account and divide the TDN yield by crop production cost per acre. This TDN yield per dollar metric determined from replicated hybrid plots, in my mind, is the optimal economic comparison to drive decision-making in 2023 and beyond.
Team up with your seed advisers, agronomist, and nutritionist to make a plan toward generating better data here in 2023. Consider investing with a contract research group if labor is tight but you are willing to invest in better data. Then compare your replicated trial-winning hybrids to other replicated plot outcomes from seed companies or university hybrid trial results to drive $100,000 decisions.
- An average dairy in the Midwest or Eastern U.S. feeds 65 pounds of corn silage per cow per day, with a market price of 10 times the corn price per bushel = $6.50 per bushel.
- An average dairy in the Southern or Western U.S. feeds 45 pounds of corn silage per cow per day, with a market price of around $125 per ton according to the author’s personal communications.