Bolsen: Minimizing Dry Matter Loss

Posted on February 22, 2013 in Forage Foundations


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Over the past five years, U.S. harvesters have put up 109.9 million tons of corn silage, according to Dr. Keith Bolsen, professor emeritus with Kansas State University and private forage consultant.

That means that corn silage is a $7 billion industry today.  Compare that to the $2 billion industry of the 1970s and it’s easy to see that putting up high quality forages has never been so important.

With an extensive career in forage harvest and storage research, Bolsen estimated that dry matter losses average just below 20 percent.  That means the industry is positioned to lose $1.3 billion through forage shrink.

“Shrink is too high too often,” Bolsen said.

However, he said his wife, who also consults with forage harvesters, points out that the loss could be as little as $600 million with better forage management.  To meet that goal, harvesters and producers need to fine-tune their silage programs.

Communicate and prepare
Bolsen explained that forages are a product of the silage triangle, with the dairy or feedlot, the crop grower and the silage contractor in each corner.  Pointing fingers at any point in the triangle does no good.  However, sitting down with your team during the off-season provides a great opportunity to get everyone on the same page for the upcoming year.  Define your goals and develop a plan to achieve them.

Inoculate at the forage chopper
Bolsen said “there’s no Olympic games for bacterial inoculants.”  That is, bacteria don’t race to act upon a forage.  The activity takes placed exactly where they’re applied.  That means that poor application on a truckload, bunker or pile does little good for the entire forage.  Apply the inoculant as you chop to help ensure adequate distribution.

Reach an optimum silage density
In addition to inoculants, packing density plays a big role in adequate fermentation and reduced dry matter loss.  Bolsen provided an example that showed multiple packing tractors can make a big difference in dry matter density.  He warned against systems that suffer from “circling disease.”  He said that’s often what happens when just one tractor is doing the packing.  The tractor spends considerable time driving on the feed pad, which doesn’t do any good in packing the feed.  That time should be spent on the pile.  He reminded harvesters not to rush their work and optimize the time they spend packing.

“Drive slow and remember your pack tractor has a reverse gear,” he said.

Apply the best cover/seal
High quality, oxygen-barrier plastics may seem like a big investment, but Bolsen said it pays huge dividends in reducing shrink by as much as 3 to 5 percent.  It also eliminates having to feed surface spoilage.  Bolsen reminded harvesters that slime in the ration results in depressed dry matter intakes, a destroyed forage mat in the rumen, and dramatically reduced fiber digestibility.  He said feeding these spoiled feeds can result in losses from $15 to $145 less milk per cow per year (with $16/cwt milk).

So should producers pitch the spoiled feed?  Bolsen said no.  Although spoilage has an economic impact, safety far outweighs that dollar value.  He said he doesn’t want to see producers on top of piles pitching feed as they could get caught in a silage avalanche or suffer a fall.

That led Bolsen to what he labels as the most important issue facing harvesters and producers today:  safety.  He reminded harvesters that everyone in the silage triangle needs to make an effort to work more safely as no farm wants to experience a fatality of a team member.  The added bonus:  safer bunker piles are more efficient and better efficiency means lower shrink.  It’s a win for everyone.

“Please, let’s start taking silage safety seriously,” Bolsen concluded.

Category: Forage Foundations
Forage inoculants
Forage storage and management