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Farmers find value in sharing silage data

Data-driven discussion groups enhance New York farmers’ silage production.

Kara Lynn Dunn

May 14, 2019

5 Min Read
Neil Peck feeds corn silage to his 950 cows and 950 heifers
SILAGE IS KEY: Neil Peck says corn silage is the key to his cows’ diet. He feeds 950 cows and 950 heifers on his Welcome Stock Farm. Darren Johnson

There can be significant value in talking to your farmer neighbors and comparing notes.

Localized, data-driven discussion groups held over the past three years have enhanced corn silage production for New York farmers, including Neil Peck of Welcome Stock Farm in Schuylerville.

He operates the farm with his father, William Peck Sr., and his brother, Bill Jr. Corn silage comprises 35% of the ration. They plant 1,000 acres of corn silage and harvest 1,100 acres, with 100 acres contracted. The silage is fed to 950 Holstein cows and 950 heifers.

“Corn silage is the most influential factor in our cows’ diet,” Neil Peck says. “For forage quality, our top considerations are how to enhance digestibility and starch content for energy. The higher, the better.”

Sharing notes

Cornell Extension field crops specialist Kevin Ganoe and dairy specialist David Balbian assembled three corn silage discussion groups in eastern and central New York in 2017.

Peck’s group, which comprised five of his farmer-neighbors, was the closest group personally and geographically.

“Our group had a natural trust from knowing one another for all of our farming careers and a confidence from comparing data from crops grown within 10 miles of our own farms,” he says.  

The groups were a spinoff of Balbian’s precision feeding management project conducted in 2015. Both efforts were funded by the New York Farm Viability Institute.

“The precision feed project showed a clear correlation between crop quality and milk production,” Balbian says. “That prompted interest in how to get more consistent silage quality.”

Gathering data

Group members followed a protocol to collect and submit silage samples for analysis in January. They gathered to review the data in February. The analysis included multiple datasets on digestibility; dry matter; protein, starch and other components; fermentation; processing score; and more.

The groups also looked at data from the Pro-Dairy corn silage hybrid variety trials that recently added predicted milk yield analysis.

A highlighted key datapoint was uNDF240, a measure of undigested neutral detergent fiber after 240 hours that correlates with a fill factor. Lower uNDF240 values indicate high feed intake, which translates into higher milk production.

“A 1% change in uNDF240 can change milk production potential up or down by 7 pounds per cow per day,” Ganoe says.

The group’s hybrid data included brown mid-rib (BMR) and non-BMR varieties. As a result of this data, one farmer started planting acreage to BMR corn and another tried a BMR planting with a fungicide.

“The BMR hybrids showed consistently higher quality compared to the non-BMR hybrids,” he says. “The issue is that while the BMR hybrids have higher digestibility, they do not yield as high, they are more disease-susceptible and the cows eat more, requiring more acreage to meet demand, and they cost more.”

While farm data may show a certain hybrid has higher forage quality, seed cost and cash flow remain priority considerations for farms in these tough economic times.

“Even though the quality of a hybrid might make up its higher seed corn price in milk return, some farms choose to control what they can and take a chance with less costly seed,” Ganoe says.

Results on the farm

Peck estimates the value of making a good decision on varieties to plant at $28 to $30 an acre, plus the added value in terms of animal health and production.

The Welcome Stock dairy herd averages 29,000 pounds per cow per year with a fat percentage of 4.0 and a protein percentage of 3.1.

While two years’ worth of data has convinced Peck that his hybrid choices have been good ones, the group discussions covered much more ground.

Neil Peck stands outside at his Welcome Stock Farm
SHARING KNOWLEDGE: Neil Peck is part of a group of farmers who have enhanced their forage and milk production by participating in a group discussion project.

“After we review everyone’s variety performance results, the discussion goes into the rainfall, fertilizer and production practices that influenced those results,” he says.

These discussions influenced his decision to first borrow, then buy a new tillage tool.

“One group member had success with a multipurpose tillage tool with disks for chopping field residue, ripping shanks to break up the soil and a leveling bar to prepare the soil for planting,” Peck says. “I borrowed one for a small field trial and that convinced me to buy my own.”

Balbian says other members have noticed a difference in how choppers process kernels, and one traded in an older chopper to improve harvesting quality.

“The data on how well silage fermented revealed eye-opening differences with inoculants for attention,” Balbian says.

Knowledge is power

“These groups’ farmers are now empowered to evaluate their own numbers, the data from Cornell and others, and to challenge seed companies, all of which say their seed is the best, to show proof of their hybrids’ value,” Ganoe says.

While achieving crop consistency is still a challenge due to environmental challenges beyond a grower’s control, these discussions have helped the producers see how data can be a tool for managing corn year to year.

“Use the data to empower your decision-making,” Balbian says. “Control what you can, change what you can, anticipate the years in which weather may force your grain bill to cover a silage deficit, and adjust your nutritional program accordingly.”

“The comprehensive data the group received is something we might not have accessed on our own outside the group opportunity,” Peck says. “Comparing my data with that of my neighbors is much more relevant than looking at trials from the other side of the state, out-of-state or another country.”

For more information on the benefits of dairy discussion groups, contact field crops specialist Kevin Ganoe at 315-866-7920 or [email protected]; or dairy specialist Dave Balbian at 518-312-3592 or [email protected].

For a Farmer to Farmer Discussion Groups facilitator’s guide, developed with NYFVI funding, contact Kathy Barrett at [email protected] or 607-229-4357.

Dunn writes from her farm in Mannsville, N.Y.

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