Mother Nature did a big favor for Steve Bushman and his corn silage clients last spring.

Rainy weather kept Iowa farmers out of their fields for up to two weeks, putting the stagger into planting dates that Bushman has been seeking for years. The result: Less pressure on him and his chopping crews last fall, and more dairy producers pleased with the moisture content of chopped corn going into their bunkers.

“Everything went well last year,” says Bushman, of Fort Atkinson, IA. “I think people finally realize that they don't have to plant corn the first of May.”

Fall is the busiest time for this 21-year custom harvester. He and six full-time and five part-time employees chop about 3,500 acres of corn silage plus 1,500 of earlage. Earlier, they do custom planting and chop haylage for some of the same clients, plus they custom-grind hay year-round.

When it comes to customer service, Bushman goes the extra mile. His sometimes-frustrating efforts to get farmers to stagger planting dates are aimed at helping himself, too. But he has done a number of other things aimed strictly at helping customers grow the amount and quality of feed they need.

For example, some farmers are short on land. So several years ago he began experimenting with narrow-row corn, figuring it would increase silage yields. He got yield increases of up to 3 tons/acre, but the big gains weren't there every year. He did find that narrow rows increase grain content, so silage energy levels are higher.

He now plants and chops 15"-row corn for three dairy customers, and several others are interested.

With help from Pioneer representatives, Bushman also did a study to determine the effect of various cutting heights on silage yield and quality. He found that he could increase silage energy content by leaving longer stubble. But that hasn't caught on with clients because yield is reduced.

Bushman has two choppers. One chopping crew starts chopping corn in southern Iowa and works north. The other starts in western Iowa and works back toward Bushman's northeastern Iowa home.

To make that work, and harvest everyone's corn at just the right time, the growers need to stagger hybrid relative maturities and/or planting dates. Ideally, those north and east of the starting points should choose longer-season hybrids or delay planting.

“We've been working on that for a long time,” says Bushman. “We finally convinced some of them to plant fuller-season corn. But they just planted it earlier, so we didn't gain anything. Last year they were planting 110- to 112-day corn on the 15th of May, and it worked out well.”

Gregg Jorgenson, a Pioneer field sales agronomist at Decorah, IA, has worked with Bushman and his customers on hybrid selection and planting dates. He suggested several hybrids of different maturities that have good silage characteristics.

Most growers are reluctant to delay planting, and for good reason if the crop will be harvested for grain, says Jorgenson. In Iowa, corn yields drop if planting is delayed past May 10 or 12. But if planting later will prevent silage corn from getting too dry before it can be chopped, waiting might be wise. Planting even five or 10 days later than normal can make a big difference, he says.

“It's tough to get them to delay planting,” says Jorgenson. “Last May, Mother Nature did it for them and they found out it worked pretty well. It will be interesting to see what happens this year.”