Low-density silage piles equal lost dollars
Field work has begun and we’ll be cutting first-crop alfalfa in no time. It’s amazing how much work can get done in such a short amount of time, but one process that should receive adequate time is silage packing.
In recent packing density analyses, completed by Vita Plus consultants in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, roughly 25 percent of the corn silage bunkers surveyed had a packing density of less than 15.5 pounds per cubic foot. A density of 15 pounds per cubic foot has been the industry minimum for a while now and, as packing density decreases, you risk dry matter (DM) losses and losing more money. Let’s take a closer look at that financial impact.
Effects on your pocketbook
Packing densities that don’t hit at least 15 pounds per cubic foot are subject to a DM loss greater than 15 percent, as shown in figure 1 below. If we value corn silage at $40 per ton on an as-fed basis, a packing density of 13 pounds per cubic foot would lose around $7 per ton due to DM loss. A packing density of 17 pounds per cubic foot would reduce the DM economic loss to around $5.50 per ton. If you harvest and ensile 5,000 tons per year, that difference in packing density equates to $7,500 more in your pocket.
We recommend a minimum target density of greater than 15 pounds per cubic foot, but prefer to push the bar to somewhere between 17 to 20 pounds per cubic feet. This is the new industry gold standard. As producers continue to look for ways to work with slimmer margins, ensuring silages are properly packed can be a crucial piece of the profitability puzzle.
Plan ahead for success
As with most processes, a good preseason checklist can help reduce the risk of having any packing density issues. A quick meeting before each harvest can help ensure goals are met. It may be as simple as explaining to your workforce how critical it is to properly store feed on your farm.
Here is one example of a good checklist:
- Know the packing tractor weight. Don’t guess. It is critical to ensure you have at least 800 to 1,000 pounds of packing weight per ton of feed delivered to the structure per hour.
- Know how fast loads will be coming in from the field. If loads come in every 10 minutes, and each load is 17 tons, you will be packing 102 tons per hour. In this example, you would need between 81,600 and 102,000 pounds to have the ideal weight packing your silage. This may require renting an additional tractor for packing. Table 1 below provides guidelines for the weight required to achieve optimal packing density.
- Packing needs to happen the entire time. The packing tractors need to stay on the pile whenever trucks are actively unloading.
- Use thin layers. This isn’t like moving snow! Try to pack in 6- to 8-inch layers because you can’t get enough weight on thicker layers to get an ideal density.
- Minimize mud from tires. Bringing mud into the pile will increase opportunity for contaminants and toxins in your feed.
- Use good packing technique. Be sure tractors can drive over the pile in multiple directions. Avoid changing directions or turning on the pile as slipping tires will dig up feed and undo your work.
- Final drive smoothness. It’s important to take one final drive over the pile to smooth out the surface as much as possible to help eliminate oxygen in the upper surface of your pile.
Moisture and chop length can be just as crucial to ensure proper packing. I suggest throwing the calendar out the window and relying more heavily on scouting your crops and identifying maturity and moisture.
Well-researched forage inoculants, such as Vita Plus Crop-N-Rich® inoculants, are also crucial to accelerate the fermentation process and/or reduce spoilage at feedout. Both processes reduce DM loss. Next, a proven oxygen barrier plastic, such as Silostop®, should be used to cover the bunker or pile to limit oxygen infiltration.
A clean face is also important. Roughly pulling down feed can quickly undo the good density the pile once had, especially with haylage where the payloader bucket can loosen large chunks during feedout.
What if I have low density on a silage pile?
Have you ever been in this situation? The silage is put up, covered and you feel good about it. Then you uncover and begin feeding it. A consultant stops by and tells you the packing density is 13 pounds per cubic foot. Now what do you do? You should certainly reflect on the process to try and determine what led to the low density so can correct it for future crops. But what do you do with this pile of feed that wasn’t packed correctly? Obviously, you can’t just repack it.
The best thing to do is start feeding more inches per day because of the lack of density. This pile will disappear more quickly because you’re feeding more and have higher DM loss. You will need to monitor feedout closely and work with your consultant to help manage feed inventory. You can also consider buying extra feed if you don’t have carryover from previous crops.
Spoilage could be a challenge because of the amount of oxygen that was present during the ensiling process. If heating occurs at feedout, a propionic acid-based stabilizer for total mixed rations (TMR), such as Vita Plus Bunklife® forage preservative, may be helpful.
Save money: Plan your packing now
Ensuring adequate packing density may take a little bit more time as the choppers are running. However, that’s a minimal investment when you compare it to the costs associated with DM loss. Now is the time to review and implement a packing checklist before spring fieldwork begins. After all, packing silages isn’t something that should be taken lightly.
This article was originally written for www.progressivedairy.com.
About the author: Nathan Hrnicek is a Vita Plus forage products specialist, working closely with producers and Vita Plus and dealer staff in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. He grew up on his family’s 1,200-acre diversified crop and livestock farm. He earned his associate’s degree in general agriculture from the Ivy Tech Community College in Lafayette, Indiana. He built his agronomy and forage expertise through several career experiences in seed sales as well as a sampling laboratory.
Feed quality and nutrition