The fate of a dairy’s forage quality is literally in the hands of the custom forage harvester hired to cut the crop, said Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois emeritus dairy nutritionist. So they better get it right, he added.

“You control that forage in terms of particle size and quality. You are very important,” he told forage harvesters at the U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc. annual convention in early March.

“But if you chop that forage wrong and a cow’s lame, has acidosis, doesn’t get pregnant or it affects her immune system, that cow’s got a big problem.”

He laid out several reminders of what dairy cows – and producers – expect from their forage and how harvesters can help provide it.

Forage cut at its optimal maturity provides the cow with the right amount of chemical fiber. “But if you’re five days late chopping a guy’s forage, you just produced a forage with too much fiber and lower dry matter intake,” Hutjens said.

“You’ve got to get there on time. Once you’re five days later, the plant cell wall gets lignified and now you’ve got beef-cow feed and heifer feed. Those high-producing cows won’t get enough nutrients, digestibility or intake.”

The more digestible the cell wall, the more energy goes to lactating cows that produce more milk and profit, he added. And that makes for a happy client.

A cow also needs physical fiber, something harvesters can make sure is provided if the crop is chopped at the right length or particle size.

“Remember, this cow has to spend 600 minutes a day chewing her cud, so if you don’t chop that right, we’ve got a problem. That’s why some dairy managers in Illinois don’t have custom operators, because they’re never sure you’re going to show up at the right time.”

Custom harvesters should know when to cut a crop at a specific maturity to provide the quality of feed required. For example, if chopping oatlage in Wisconsin or wheatlage in Illinois, harvest in boot stage for dairy cows and dough stage for heifers, Hutjens said.

Chopping corn silage at the right dry matter is “important because it affects your machine, how fast you go, what you charge and, for my dairy cows, how well the feed ferments.”

He recommended targeting 32% dry matter when storing in bags, bunkers or piles and 34-36% in upright silos under 60’ tall.

“If that dry matter gets higher, I’m going to go shorter (in particle length/size), because that silage is not going to pack tight enough for me (if chopped long).”

For harvesters who also store the feed, Hutjens suggested following the University of Wisconsin density recommendation of greater than 16 lbs of dry matter per cubic foot. If bagging, compact the silage as tightly as possible without splitting bags.

Apply inoculants, he stressed.

“I want every ton of my silage, my high-moisture corn and my snaplage inoculated. You’re going to have an optimal fermentation, and every time you enhance fermentation of your silage product, he’s going to invite you back.”

Based on Kansas State University research, dairy producers should get $6 in higher milk production from an investment of $1-3 per treated ton of silage, he pointed out.

Kernel processing is also a must, Hutjens said. “I don’t want to see a corn kernel, because I may see it again. And where? In the manure of the animal.

“Have your farmers run a fecal starch test. Take from 10 or 12 cows, send a sample in, and for $20 they’ll run a fecal starch. Every 1% of fecal starch over 5%, from 5% to 6% or 6% to 7%, for example, is two-thirds of a pound of milk. So if you don’t process that corn silage right, or the dairy manager doesn’t grind his or her grain right, it’s leaving two-thirds of a pound of milk on the table. I want that corn pulverized so it can be fermented in the rumen and/or digested in the small intestine.”

Processing corn grain and silage finer adds risk of acidosis, he warned, but the situation is worse if starch comes through the cow undigested, losing rumen microbial benefits and nutrients.

Shredlage, a new way of harvesting corn silage using a chopper attachment that shreds plant material, is a “hot topic we’re going to be watching,” Hutjens said. “If that 2 lbs (of additional milk production per cow) is real, 2 lbs of milk covers a lot of cost for a dairy manager.” (Read more at “Shredded Corn Silage Increases Milk Production.”

Several harvesters at the meeting, however, felt they’ll be asked to convert equipment to provide Shredlage, but not get paid for it.

He predicted that snaplage may soon come on strong as a feed ingredient. Snaplage is a blend of kernels, cobs, husks and shanks harvested with a forage chopper equipped with a snapper head and kernel processor. (Read more at “Snaplage Works As Dairy Feed.”