Even with 35 full-time employees, it's a challenge to free up time and people to efficiently cover 15,000 tons of corn silage going into a bunker silo each fall, says Greg Ledbetter.
So Ledbetter, owner/manager of C-Bar-M Dairy and Ted Miller Dairy near Jerome, ID, turns the chore over to a custom silo-covering firm — Western Ag Enterprises.
“A crew comes in with the plastic and the tires and gets everything tied down in about a half day,” he says. “If we were doing it ourselves, we'd have to shut down half the dairy to get enough people over there to do the job. Even then, we wouldn't be able to get it done as quickly or as efficiently.”
What's more, a Western Ag crew returns once a week throughout the feeding season to fold back plastic — about 7' a week — and remove the tires weighing it down.
“It's one less detail we have to worry about,” says Ledbetter. “Most of the time, they're in and out and I don't even know they've been here. I'll just be driving by the bunker and see that a few more tires are stacked off to the side.”
Western Ag, known primarily for its custom haystack tarping business, began offering the silage covering service to Idaho dairy producers about five years ago.
“It looked like a good opportunity for us,” says Western Ag's Jared Coley. “A lot of dairy producers in this area weren't covering their bunkers at all. And that meant a lot of quality silage was going to waste. Once a few people started using our service and saw the benefits, awareness increased and things took off from there.”
The reasons Ledbetter cites for using a custom service are fairly typical of Coley's 60 dairy customers.
“A dairy might have a lot of people working on it, but those people are already plenty busy,” Coley notes. “That makes the chances of getting a bunker covered within 24-48 hours pretty slim. We're experienced and specialized, so we can get it done faster and better.”
Service is a key component of the custom silage-covering business, agrees Jim Taylor of Staples Custom Covering in Visalia, CA.
“You want to get that seal on as soon as you can after the harvester is finished in order to save the value of the feed,” says Taylor. “It takes a lot of coordination between the dairy producer, the harvester and us.”
Coordination is also a critical component of follow-up maintenance service. Both Western Ag and Staples return to customer dairies at least once a week to remove plastic from bunkers or piles, stack tires and haul used material off to the dump.
“You have to work closely with customers in order to keep track of any changes they make in rations or feeding schedules,” says Taylor. “That determines how much plastic you remove each week.”
Covering services work off a variety of fee structures. In a typical arrangement, Western Ag charges customers an up-front fee for plastic and tires (to cover extra labor costs associated with bringing in tires). It then bills for covering and follow-up maintenance (including plastic removal) on a per-square-foot basis. Other companies prefer to work on a per-ton basis.
“We think a square-foot fee is the simplest and most fair, but there are all kinds of ways to work it,” says Coley.
Using plastic and tires to cover bunker silos and silage piles will soon become a thing of the past if Larry Berger has his way.
An animal scientist at the University of Illinois, Berger recently applied for a patent on a new silage-covering material. He claims his product will do a better job of protecting ensiled forages from spoilage than the traditional plastic — and-tire method. Plus, livestock will eat it.
Berger has been working on the edible covering for about five years. He came up with the idea while watching his wife make homemade play-dough.
“We've gone through about 40 different ingredients and formulations,” he says. “It's been kind of a slow process because we can only do one replication (of experiments) a year.”
Salt and ground wheat are the principal ingredients. He's reluctant to divulge the others while the product is in the patent-pending stage, but says most are common in dairy and beef cattle rations.
It's the ingredients that make his cover “completely different” from molasses-based spray-on products that were marketed several years ago, he says.
Berger hasn't worked all the bugs out of the system yet. “It's a work in progress,” he says.
Some of the basics at this point:
The ingredients are mixed with water to produce a material with the consistency of wet concrete.
That material is sprayed on a pile at a depth of ½-¾". In his experiments, Berger has applied the material by walking over a pile with a large hose connected to a cement sprayer and pump.
“Eventually, we'd like to come up with a completely mechanized system so we can get the cover on more quickly,” he says.
After the material dries (usually within a half-hour of application), a layer of paraffin is applied over the top for extra protection from the elements.
“The wheat and salt mixture itself holds up pretty well to rain or snow,” explains Berger. “But if you get three or four days of a slow drizzle, it can start to break up a little. Using the wax helps improve the water-shedding capacity.”
At feed-out, the cover material gets mixed into the TMR with other feed ingredients. At the ½-¾" depth, the covering accounts for 1-2% of the ration on a dry matter basis in high-silage diets.
Berger believes the potential for reduced spoilage is likely to be a major selling point of the edible cover. Less than 2" of edible cover shows spoilage as compared to the 4-5" common in plastic-plus-tires setups, he says.
“When the material is properly applied, it adheres to the forage particles and prevents air from reaching the silage,” he says. The salt in the material also acts as a preservative.
Reduced labor is another potential advantage. Covering a bunker with plastic and tires often requires four or five people. With the edible cover, one or two people could handle the job.
Environmental friendliness may be still another drawing card.
“With plastic and tires, there's always a disposal question,” says Berger. “You either have to burn the plastic or haul it off to the dump. With an edible cover, you don't have that problem. You just feed it to the cows.”
Berger figures the edible cover will be ready for the marketplace in two to three years.
“It will probably cost more up front than plastic,” he says. “But when you figure in nutritional value and lower spoilage, producers will come out ahead.”