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Selecting corn hybrids for silage production

Corn hybrid selection is essential to profitably produce silage and milk. By carefully choosing your silage hybrid, you can manage risk and maximize silage quality, yield and overall economic return.

Criteria: How to select hybrids for silage

  • Longer-season hybrids tend to produce higher silage yield. Hybrids planted for silage should generally be five to 10 days longer in relative maturity than hybrids planted for grain. However, longer-season hybrids may not be optimal if one wants to harvest silage early or have the option to harvest corn for grain rather than silage.

  • Select multiple hybrids with varying maturity, as this widens the harvest window. Silage that is custom-harvested within a short period of time may require a narrower range in maturity to reduce variation in harvest moisture. Selecting hybrids with varying maturity also widens the pollination window, reducing the probability of an entire crop experiencing hot and dry conditions during pollination.

  • Harvest at the correct moisture level. If missed, this can negate the benefits of good hybrid selection.

  • Consider both silage quality and yield, as corn silage is an energy source for livestock. The two key variables for dairy producers to consider are milk per acre and milk per ton, both of which are calculated using the Milk 2006 corn silage evaluation system developed by the University of Wisconsin. Once you’ve identified a suitable hybrid group, select based on specific forage quality and agronomic traits. Also consult with a livestock nutritionist to ensure hybrids will have the necessary nutritional value.

  • Factor in other agronomic factors, such as standability, drydown, herbicide and insect resistance, and tolerance to drought and disease. Standability is less important for silage hybrids than grain hybrids due to the earlier time of harvest. Avoid hybrids with strong ratings for stay-green because whole-plant moisture will be too high when harvested according to kernel stage.

Regional comparisons: Silage hybrid yields and quality

Silage yield and quality can differ greatly among hybrids.

 

Table 1 shows ranges in yield and quality for hybrids evaluated in 2017 University of Minnesota corn silage trials.

 

The difference between the highest- and lowest-yielding hybrids ranged from 3.6 tons of silage dry matter (DM) per acre in Waseca to 5.4 tons of DM per acre in Hutchinson. In comparison, the difference in overall silage quality (milk per ton) among hybrids ranged from 479 pounds of milk per ton of silage in Rochester to 551 pounds of milk per ton of silage in Hutchinson.

Table 1: Summary of 2017 University of Minnesota corn silage trials*

*Source: 2017 University of Minnesota corn silage trials
Location Number of hybrids Yield range (tons of DM per acre) Quality range (lbs. of milk per ton)
Rochester 59 59 10.0 to 14.1 2,760 to 3,239
Waseca 59 7.8 to 11.4 2,572 to 3,092
Hutchinson 29 10.1 to 15.5 2,752 to 3,303

Silage hybrid performance

Consistent performance over multiple trials with different soil and weather conditions is critical because next year’s growing conditions cannot be predicted.

A hybrid that performs well in multiple environments will have a high potential of performing well the following year. That’s why dairy producers should select hybrids that perform well over multiple sites in a region.

In the past, the performance of a given set of hybrids could be evaluated over multiple years at a given location, but now that’s less realistic because the lifespan for a typical corn hybrid is just a few years.

To reduce risk, producers should select multiple hybrids based on information from several sources including universities, seed companies and commodity groups. Results from unbiased and replicated trials that include multiple hybrids from different companies are particularly important.

Corn silage trial results

Growers should also use data from individual on-farm corn trials if available, such as those from the following sources:

 

The importance of yield and quality

Selecting hybrids that produce high corn silage yields is important.

For example, assume a farmer has a 4,000-ton corn silage feed requirement. If Hybrid A yields 33 tons per acre and Hybrid B yields 28 tons per acre, this farmer would need to harvest 143 acres for silage if planting Hybrid B, but only 121 acres if planting Hybrid A.

In this example, selecting Hybrid A over Hybrid B would allowed this farmer an extra 22 acres for grain harvest. At 190 bushels per acre, this would be 4,180 bushels of extra corn to feed or sell, with a value of $16,720 at $4 per bushel.

Silage quality

While this example demonstrates the importance of yield, it does not account for silage quality. Since corn silage is an energy source for animal performance, producers should evaluate both silage yield and quality when selecting hybrids.

Silage yield is commonly presented on both a DM and wet (65 percent moisture) basis. Dry matter yield allows fair comparisons among hybrids harvested at different whole-plant moisture levels.

The many variables representing silage quality can make hybrid selection overwhelming. Consulting with a livestock nutritionist during the hybrid selection process helps ensure that selected hybrids have the necessary nutritive value for your herd.

Milk per ton and milk per acre: An overview

Overall silage quality is commonly summarized in a single variable known as milk per ton, which is calculated using the Milk 2006 corn silage evaluation system. It’s estimated using forage analyses for crude protein (CP), neutral detergent fiber (NDF), NDF digestibility (NDFD), starch and nonfiber carbohydrate.

Milk per ton -- the quality of the silage -- is typically shown along with milk per acre, which is calculated by multiplying milk per ton by silage DM yield. Thus, milk per acre is largely influenced by silage yield, making it possible for a hybrid to have high milk per acre with low milk per ton.

However, because milk per acre combines both yield and quality, and because silage quality is so important, many people look at milk per acre as an indication of silage yield rather than silage yield itself.

How to find a high-quality silage hybrid

When selecting hybrids based on milk per ton and milk per acre, consider the following:

  • Aim for hybrids with high values for both milk per ton and milk per acre. These hybrids produce high-quality forage and high silage yield, and are most profitable.

  • Hybrids with a low value for milk per ton and a high value for milk per acre have below-average quality but high yield. Silage from these hybrids may be better suited for livestock with lower nutritive requirements than lactating dairy cows.

  • Hybrids with a high value for milk per ton and a low value for milk per acre have high quality and below-average yield. These hybrids will have low profitability for dairy producers that grow their own silage, because gains in quality will not likely offset reductions in yield.

  • Avoid hybrids with low values for both milk per ton and milk per acre. They have relatively lower yield and lower quality.

Once you’ve identified a hybrid group with high values for milk per acre and milk per ton, base further selection within this group on specific agronomic and forage quality traits.

In general, higher NDF values indicate lower intake and animal performance, while higher values for CP, starch, NDF digestibility and in vitro digestibility imply greater performance potential.

While small changes in forage quality can greatly impact milk production, a less-than-5-percent difference in individual quality traits between hybrids is probably not statistically significant or worth worrying about, especially since milk per ton summarizes overall forage quality.

Transgenic and agronomic traits

When selecting hybrids, it’s important to remember that transgenic insect resistance traits do not increase yield potential. Instead, they protect yield potential when pressured by the target pest. Paying extra for transgenic insect resistance when it’s not needed reduces economic return.

For example, in Minnesota, corn for silage is often planted after alfalfa and pressure from corn rootworm is typically minimal in the first year after alfalfa. That’s because, in Minnesota, the majority of corn rootworm eggs are laid in corn and the larvae generally hatch within two years.

However, you should consider the need for transgenic resistance to European corn borer in you fields and the herbicide resistance traits needed for your cropping system.

Agronomic considerations

Other important agronomic considerations include tolerance to drought and disease. Selecting a hybrid with a high rating for drought tolerance may be useful on droughty soils, in dry regions or in a lower-rainfall area where a previous crop of alfalfa has depleted subsurface soil moisture.

Standability is less important for silage hybrids than grain hybrids due to the earlier time of harvest.

Jeff Coulter, Extension agronomist

Reviewed in 2018

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