Feed is the biggest expense for a dairy producer, but short- and longer-term planning strategies can help manage that expense.

“Typically, while providing at least 30% of the total dry matter that a dairy farm is going to use in one year, corn silage accounts for about 30% of the total feeding costs,” said Gonzalo Ferreira, dairy management specialist at Virginia Tech Extension. “Producing enough good-quality corn silage is critical for the profitability of dairy farms.”

Now is the perfect time to start planning for this season and next season.

  1. Have a clear understanding of your forage needs.

Know the current stocks of all your forages, which means creating a forage budget that outlines your near-term needs—from now to six months out—and longer term—the next 12-18 months. Next, ask yourself what forages do you have in stock, how much can be harvested, and how much you will need to buy from outside the farm? It’s good to get this information down on paper or in a spreadsheet and use it as a map for the future.

  1. Build your cropping strategy.

When it comes to field work, farmers should understand how important it is to plant corn at the right time, in the best conditions possible. So, when planning your cropping strategy, discuss the best planting density with your agronomist. Data from Virginia Tech, where corn silage yields and quality at different plant densities were tested, indicates higher yields can be obtained without sacrificing nutritional quality by putting a little more seed into the field, Ferreira said.

“Especially during years when stocks are very low and it’s critical to replenish your forage reserves, this is a strategy to consider in your best fields,” he said. “Good cropping conditions can gain you much more silage without sacrificing quality.”

  1. Avoid heat stress for higher quality and yield.

In southern areas of the U.S., heat can be an issue for the silage crop. Thus, it’s important to strategically plan your hybrid selection and planting date. The key is to plan the seeding time so the early kernel development of the crop does not occur during times of maximum daily temperatures.

“If silking time or early kernel development occurs when the temperatures are very high—meaning 95°F or above—the crop can have a substantial kernel abortion rate, which will impact the quality and yield,” he said. “If you have less kernel development, the result is less starch and much more fiber. In addition, the crop will have a lot of moisture at harvesting and packing. Try to avoid the critical period with the highest temperatures.”

  1. Evaluate your forage needs holistically.

Certain forages are cheaper than others, but their nutritional quality can differ substantially, often providing a much higher concentration of fiber. While the idea of cheaper forages may be appealing on the surface, it’s only a partial view of your total mixed ration (TMR).

“Think about the whole diet when choosing your crop for silage. Because of the nutritional composition, with a cheaper silage you will likely end up putting more grain or more concentrate into the diet,” Ferreira noted. “A more expensive silage might be high enough quality to allow you to have a cheaper TMR. Make sure to look at the whole picture.”