Silage harvest has begun in some parts of Ohio. Proper harvest timing is critical because it ensures the proper dry matter (DM) concentration required for high-quality preservation, which in turn results in good animal performance and lower feed costs. The proper DM concentration is the same whether it is a beautiful, record-breaking corn crop or a severely drought-stressed field with short plants containing no ears.
The recommended ranges for silage DM are:
Bunker: 30 to 35%
Upright: 32 to 38%
Sealed upright 35 to 40%
Bag: 32 to 40%
Chopping corn silage at the wrong DM concentration will increase fermentation losses and reduce the nutrient value of the silage. Harvesting corn too wet (low DM concentration) results in souring, seepage, and storage losses of the silage with reduced animal intake. Harvesting too dry (high DM concentration) promotes mold because the silage cannot be adequately packed to exclude oxygen. Harvesting too dry also results in lower energy concentrations and reduced protein digestibility.
Corn silage that is too dry is almost always worse than corn silage that is slightly too wet. So if you are uncertain about the DM content, it is usually better to err on chopping a little early rather than a little late. Follow the guidelines below to be more confident in your moisture assessment.
Kernel stage not a reliable guide for timing silage harvest
The dry matter content of whole plant corn varies with maturity. Research has shown that the position of the kernel milk-line is NOT a reliable indicator alone for determining harvest timing. Geographic location, planting date, hybrid selection, and weather conditions affect the relationship between kernel milk-line position and whole-plant DM content. In a Wisconsin study, 82% of the hybrids tested exhibited a poor relationship between the kernel milk-line stage and whole-plant % DM. In Ohio, we have seen considerable variation in plant DM content within a given kernel milk-line stage.
The appearance of the kernels should only be used as a guide of when to begin sampling for DM content, see the section below When to Begin Field Sampling.
Determining silage moisture
The only reliable method of determining the optimal time to harvest corn silage is to sample and directly measure the % DM of whole plants. This information combined with average whole plant dry-down rates can be used to roughly predict the proper time to chop corn silage.
How to sample fields
Collect about 5 representative plants from the entire field, from areas with representative plant population and not from edge rows. Collect separate samples from areas that may have different dry down rates, such as swales, knolls. The moisture concentrations of plants can vary within a field (plants will be wetter in low lying area and drier on knolls) and this should be considered when collecting your sample plants.
As soon as the plants are collected, chop them uniformly (using a cleaver, machete, chipper shredder, or silage chopper) and mix thoroughly to obtain a sample with representative grain to stover ratios for DM determination. Put a representative sample in a plastic bag and keep it cool (refrigerate if possible) until determining the DM concentration. Some farmers prefer sampling only 2 or 3 plants without any additional sub-sampling to reduce the chances of a non-representative grain to stover ratio that can affect the results. In this case, choosing representative plants is even more critical.
Determine the DM by drying the plant material using a Koster oven tester, microwave, convection oven, a vortex dryer (https://extension.psu.edu/a-vortex-forage-and-biomass-sample-dryer), or taking to a lab.
From our work, the on-farm measurement of DM is probably only accurate to +/- 2 units. So if you measure a DM of 30% it could easily be 28-32%. Keep this in mind as you plan harvest timing.
When to begin field sampling
We know that the kernel milk stage is NOT reliable for determining the actual harvest date, but its appearance is a useful indicator of when to begin sampling fields to measure plant DM content.
Corn in Ohio should be first sampled to measure DM at full dent stage (100% milk, no kernel milk-line) for conventional tower or bunker silos. The full dent stage happens about 40 days after silking in Ohio. For sealed (oxygen-limited) tower silos begin sampling when the milk-line is one-fourth down the kernel (75% milk remaining). It is important to begin sampling early as a precaution against variation in the dry down.
Once whole-plant % DM is determined, use an average dry-down rate of 0.5% unit per day to estimate days until the optimal harvest moisture is reached. For example, if a given field measures 30% DM at the first sampling date, and the target DM is 35% for harvest, then the field must gain an additional 5% units of DM, thus requiring an estimated 10 days (5% units divided by 0.5 unit change per day).
Predicting the harvest date
This procedure provides only a rough estimate for the harvest date. Many factors affect the dry-down rates, such as hybrid, planting date, general health of the crop, landscape position, soil type, and weather conditions. Early planted fields and hot and dry conditions can accelerate dry down rates to 0.8 to 1.0 % unit per day. Fields should be monitored closely and more frequently under those conditions. As mentioned above, corn silage that is slightly too dry is usually worse than corn silage that is slightly too wet. Harvesting a little early is usually better than waiting too long.