'Within five years, almost every forage harvester will have a crop processor," Kevin Shinners predicts.
Shinners, a University of Wisconsin ag engineer, is enthusiastic about this latest wrinkle in corn silage production, and he's not alone. Growing numbers of dairy farmers are finding that running chopped corn through processing rolls can put more milk in the tank.
The benefits come from increased silage digestibility. Often called kernel processing, crop processing actually works on the whole plant, says Shinners. Besides damaging the kernels so they don't pass through animals undigested, it breaks up cob pieces, making them easier to digest and preventing separation in the feedbunk. It also damages stalk pieces, perhaps making them more digestible, too.
However, farmers need to pay attention to certain machine adjustments, as well as to crop maturity, in order to get the desired results, says Shinners.
He and his colleagues harvested corn silage with a kernel processor the last two falls, comparing several equipment settings and corn-crop maturities. Their recommendations:
* Increase the forage harvester's theoretical length of cut to 3/4". The coarse silage may improve rumen health, and the crop processor will break up the big cob pieces that otherwise would result.
Don't cut longer than 3/4", however. Coarser material could cause excessive wear on the processor, and may not pack well in the silo.
* Set the processing roll clearance at 3 mm.
"Also, if a custom harvester is doing your work, be diligent and work with him to set the clearance on the machine correctly to make sure you're getting the end product that you want," Shinners advises.
In the research, the 3-mm clearance resulted in 3% undamaged kernels, compared with 12% undamaged kernels for the 5-mm clearance. Virtually all kernels were damaged with the 1-mm clearance.
"We think it doesn't pay to have a kernel processor and leave 12% of the kernels undamaged. But 1 mm may be a little too aggressive, and it takes more power."
He adds: "If you operate the machine at 3/4" length of cut and a 3-mm clearance, you'll have about the same horsepower requirement and about the same throughput as if you were cutting without the processor at 3/8" length of cut."
* If you set the rolls at 1-3 mm clearance when chopping at early dent, you may not have to change the clearance as the crop matures. Some farmers think they need to reduce the processing roll clearance as the corn ripens. But the Wisconsin researchers found that to be unnecessary.
* Don't delay harvest beyond the 1/2 kernel milkline stage of maturity, as sometimes is recommended for silage processing.
"As the crop matures, stalk lignin and fiber levels increase, and starch binds with protein in the ears. The processor can't do much about it," says Shinners.
Currently, crop processors are optional on all self-propelled forage harvesters and several pull-type models. In addition, at least two companies sell retrofit crop processor kits for pull-type machines.
Hay Supplies Are Piling Up
This summer's hay supply situation is either good news or bad news, depending on your perspective.
For dairy and beef producers who are buying hay, enormous supplies are available. But for growers trying to market hay, prices have slumped to their lowest level in nearly a decade.
"It's been a tough year to sell hay," says Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist. "Prices for premium-quality, well-packaged hay in most areas are in the $85-95/ton range, down $30-40/ton from previous years. And it's almost impossible to move much average-quality hay."
Undersander and Dave Petritz, Purdue University ag economist, point to two major reasons for this year's big hay inventories and low prices.
"First, there was a record carryover of hay from 1998 and second, with a few exceptions, record-making yields are being harvested in most areas," says Undersander.
According to USDA, stocks of all hay on U.S. farms on May 1, 1999, totaled 24.8 million tons, up 14% from those of May 1 the previous year. Stocks were higher in 33 of the 48 estimating states.
In Wisconsin, for example, hay inventories climbed to 1.4 million tons, up 130,000 tons from last year's, and 250,000 tons more than on May 1, 1997. In Colorado, Kansas, Nevada and Utah, May 1 hay inventories were at record levels this year.
"Nearly all of the large carryover stocks can be attributed to the large production of 1998," says Petritz. "Even though the disappearance of hay in Indiana from December '98 through April '99 was huge, remaining May 1 stocks were equally huge. We simply had a lot of hay and not all of it was used."
Entering last winter, hay stocks were among the highest in years. A USDA report from last December showed about 112 million tons of hay stored on U.S. farms, up almost 9 million tons from the December 1997 amount and the highest tonnage in four years.
According to a USDA survey released in late June, U.S. farmers expected to harvest 3% more acres of hay this year than in '98. A new USDA hay crop report will be released Aug. 12.
While growing conditions have been very good in most regions, Undersander notes that growers in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio and Florida were plagued with dry weather into mid-July. Farmers in those areas who need hay might consider looking in the Midwest.
"There was almost no winterkill in the Midwest," he says. "And that factor, combined with an early spring with good growing conditions, led to near-record harvests in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. Most people have their silos full and still have one or two more cuttings to take."
He cautions Midwestern hay growers to work with reputable hay marketers if they wish to market their crops out-of-state.
"Hay dealers provide a valuable service because they have the contacts needed to transport hay long distances."
Even with last year's drought in Florida and the Southern Plains, hay prices weakened because many cattlemen decided to reduce their herds rather than buy hay. So far this year, Undersander hasn't seen many indications that cattle numbers are beginning to build in those areas.
"It appears that the herds are smaller than they've been historically. I suspect they'll come back a little bit, but cattle prices aren't very good yet," he says.
Adds Petritz: "The collapse in milk prices in February may have affected the enthusiasm of dairy producers to buy hay for lower-producing cows."
Hay growers have called him seeking information on areas where hay shortages might lead to higher prices. Their logic is good, he says. But he doubts that shortages are severe enough to increase prices substantially.
"Much like corn and soybeans, the supplies of hay are large, and there's tremendous potential for a big national crop," says Petritz. "Until dry weather can substantially affect the hay crop and pasture conditions, I fear prices will not increase to the levels of two years ago."