The word “silage” may have slipped into obscurity for some farming operations, but that’s not the case at Claybrook Farms at Covington, Tenn.
On their multi-generation 2,200 acre farm, brothers Chris and Dave Turner manage independent, yet collaborative, crop and cattle businesses intricately linked in one respect: feed.
Unlike 30 to 40 years ago, silage production on many farms in the area today is minimal or nearly non-existent. “I think we may be the only ones in this area doing it to this extent,” says Chris.
Working alongside newcomer Tommy Shields, a specialist in nutrition and growth physiology, their primary goal for the entire operation focuses on efficiency as the family has moved into marketing beef directly to consumers under the Claybrook Farms brand.
Shields, originally from Lake Charles, La., brought extensive experience, both hands-on and as a professor previously teaching at McNeese State University.
“I basically do whatever needs to be done, from pulling calves to treating animals and keeping records,” he says.
Herd performance lacking
When Shields arrived on the farm, one of his first tasks involved investigating why the herd wasn’t performing. Out of 275 cattle on the farm, 125 were mature cows.
Shields started by testing the feeds. “We looked at the distiller’s grains that were being fed. Three or four years ago, they were cheaper and better quality, but there’s a solvent aspect that gets the oils out of it, which actually changes the digestibility or availability of nutrients.”
He and Dave began visiting other producers, particularly dairymen, who had noticed the problem. “The animals over the last couple of years haven’t been as thrifty,” he says.
The pair made changes.
“We started by adding 150 pounds of soybean meal to a 3.5-ton batch of feed,” Shields says. “Dave eventually worked them up to 300 pounds of supplemental meal per batch, and we noted a huge difference in performance.”
Claybrook also pulls hay samples for testing. “You can’t tell the quality of hay by smelling it,” he says. “We pull samples from the bales or the windrows right before baling and then we know what to supplement.”
Everything on the farm ties closely to efficiency.
“We’re looking at how to do more with less, and make everything count — fuel, labor, feed costs — and to figure out where we’re wasting dollars,” Shields says.
Moving to next level
With their hands-on approach to cattle, all agree fully on the farm’s direction. “We want to move these cattle to the next level, so Claybrook steers are the best product out there.”
The farm produces both haylage and silage. Mixed grass fields usually yield two cuttings per year, while alfalfa yields up to six cuttings each season. “This year we lost one cutting due to excessive moisture,” Chris says.
Currently, 25 acres of corn is dedicated to silage. Claybrook also plants oats after soybeans, then cuts and wet wraps them.
“The big thing about baleage is, you don’t have to worry about Mother Nature. The wrap prevents leaching from rain or sun,” Shields says.
Mixed pasture grasses include red clover, white clover, foxtail, crabgrass, bermudagrass, fescue and orchardgrass.
“We like the mixed pastures, grasses for yield and legumes for nitrogen and crude protein,” he says.
Top corn silage yields
He notes differences in the ability to produce corn silage in the Mid-South region.
“Farther south, we could produce about 11 to 14 tons of silage, or 110-bushel corn per acre. You can’t make corn there like we can right here — and it’s a luxury.”
Shields illustrates his point by comparing silage choices.
“Corn silage is known as the king of forages because of the energy yield per acre. With hay, you have multiple cuttings and a yield of 12 tons. With corn, you’re looking at one cutting that potentially produces 17 tons.”
Chris Turner handles the row crop production on 1,800 acres. In 2014, he planted 500 acres of corn, 400 acres of wheat and the remaining 900 in soybeans. “We double-crop behind the beans and try to keep a certain amount of acreage in corn when the prices are good.
Turner planted conventional and Roundup Ready varieties because of specific requests for non-GMO crops in the silage. “This matters to our customers,” says Dave.
On-farm storage includes a 60x20 foot upright silo and an above ground pit. “We produce 17 to 20 tons of silage per acre,” Chris says.
Brett Ross, farm manager for cattle for Buckeye Farms at Como, Miss., works directly with Dave Turner.
Cow condition has improved
Having lived his entire life on farms, Ross has watched the operation’s silage production with interest.
“I know folks fed silage in the past, but it lost popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. Until the past five years, I didn’t know anyone in this part of the country producing silage.”
Ross says the overall body condition of the cows has improved since he joined Buckeye Farms in 2011. “It’s a real blessing for us because it’s improved our cattle herd. Silage is good feed.”
Buckeye Farms raises the cows from weaning weights of 575 pounds for steers and 550 for heifers to 875 pounds, at which point he sends the cattle to Claybrook for finishing.
In 2011, 25 steers were pulled into a specific program for the meat company. This year, Claybrook Farms will harvest approximately 60 steers specifically for sale in the local market.
Ross sees the benefits of increased silage production. “We’ve reduced the amount of hay we feed in the winter and our milk production is up.”
Less initial expense
Chris Turner believes younger producers like Ross, who don’t have historical or practical experience dealing with silage, can do so without great initial expense.
“You don’t have to have a big initial investment,” Chris says. “We’ve taken hay bales and lined an area with plastic.”
Location, he says, is the most important consideration. “You want to pick a spot where water stays away from the silage.”
The Turners use older equipment, including an International silage cutter. “If you have one trailer and one dump truck already on the farm, that’s all you need,” Chris says.
Pits dug in the ground can replace upright silos, and in some cases, producers have been reclaiming pits long ago abandoned.
Despite that possibility, Chris acknowledges not too many young producers are getting into silage production.
For the Turners, however, producing silage has lessened dependence on outside feed sources, allowing for greater interdependence between on-farm businesses, while continually improving herd health.