Is Your Corn Worth More as Grain or Silage?

Is Your Corn Worth More as Grain or Silage? August 29, 2017

With forage supplies tight in some areas and little immediate hope for higher corn prices, Nebraska corn growers might want to consider harvesting corn for silage this year.

Farmers should consider several factors when making this decision:

  • how to assign a value to the corn;
  • the nutrient value of the corn compared to other choices; and
  • what will be the best fit for their particular operation.

Other factors, such as fertilizer value of manure from silage, also may influence the decision.

Both methods of harvest — for grain or silage — have advantages and disadvantages, depending on an operation’s goals and objectives.

Hay and forage prices are being supported by drought conditions around the region. Eastern Nebraska had a good first cutting of hay, but subsequent cuttings have been less. Western Nebraska hasn’t fared as well. Sandhills meadows will likely average less production than last year and yields will be below long-term averages. Annual forages harvested for hay will be down as well, due to lack of moisture in June and July.

Nationally there are sufficient stocks of corn and the current crop in much of the Corn Belt is estimated to be adequate to support December corn futures trading either side of $3.50 per bushel. With the basis differences in Nebraska, the statewide average price is near $3.00 per bushel.

Standing in the Field: UNL research has shown that corn silage priced standing in the field before harvest should be valued at 7.65 times the price per bushel of corn, where a ton of corn silage is harvested at 60%-65% moisture. This multiplier value is consistent regardless of corn price. Corn at $3.00 per bushel x 7.65 = $22.95 per ton in the field.

Packed in the Bunker: Harvest, hauling and packing expenses can vary. A survey for 2016 Nebraska Farm Custom Rates - II showed a range of $7 to $10 per ton, with $10 the most common rate. Adding $10 to the $22.95-per-ton silage cost from the first example equals $32.95 per ton in the silo. Adding $2 per ton for storage, the price per ton would increase to $34.95.

Nebraska Extension Educator Aaron Berger discusses the value of harvesting corn as silage or as grain in a segment on this week's Market Journal with host Jeff Wilkerson.

Corn ear
Figure 1. If you're considering whether to harvest your corn for grain or silage, you'll want to consider several factors and calculate costs and benefits.

Delivered in the Bunk: Due to the ensiling process, corn silage will experience shrink and dry matter loss from 10% to 20% or more between when silage is packed into the silo and when it is removed to be fed. With 10% dry matter shrink, the value of silage delivered to the bunk would be $38.83 per ton. If the shrink loss is 20%, the value of silage would be $43.69 per ton.

Pricing Corn Silage

Pricing corn silage can be a complex and highly variable process. There are three points in time where corn silage is often priced:

  • standing in the field,
  • packed in the bunker, and
  • delivered in the bunk.

Comparing Nutrient Value

Comparing corn silage under current market conditions to other feed resources can help in evaluating whether to harvest a field for silage or as grain. When comparing nutrients in feeds to one another, they should be compared on a price-per-pound-on-a-dry-matter basis consumed by the cattle. This takes into account all waste loss and expense.

Corn silage in this example at either 10% or 20% shrink loss would have the following energy values when priced per pound of TDN (energy) on a dry matter basis delivered to the bunk.

  • Corn silage that is 35% dry matter with a total digestible nutrient value (TDN) of 72% on a dry-matter basis and is priced at $38.83 per ton would cost $.077 per pound of TDN.
  • Corn silage that is 35% dry matter and has a TDN value of 72% on a dry-matter basis and is priced at $43.69 per ton would cost $.086 per pound of TDN.

Here are three other feeds that are currently available in Nebraska and their energy values when priced per pound of TDN (energy) on a dry matter basis.

  • Wet distillers grains plus solubles that is 35% dry matter,  has a TDN of 108% on a dry-matter basis, and shrinks 10% and priced at $50 per ton delivered would cost $.069 per pound of TDN.
  • Corn with a TDN value of 88% on a dry-matter basis and priced at $3.00 per bushel would cost $0.071 per pound of TDN.
  • Ground grass hay with a TDN value of 53% on a dry-matter basis and priced at $90 per ton would cost $0.095 on a dry matter basis.

The nutrient or fertilizer value of manure from cattle fed corn silage should also be taken into account in determining the value of corn silage. In operations where the nutrient value from manure is utilized with cropping systems, this manure value should be credited back against the cost of the corn silage. A recent article in the Progressive Forage Magazine titled “Silage pricing: Did you account for the manure?” highlighted this topic.

Drought-Stressed Corn for Silage

Harvesting drought-stressed corn as silage may be an option to salvage the crop and also produce needed forage. Producers considering harvesting drought stressed corn should also evaluate the impact of doing so to future crop production.

In the July 28 issue of CropWatch, Bob Klein, western Nebraska crops specialist at the UNL West Central Research and Extension Center, addresses this topic in “Should You Hay or Cut Silage from Drought-Damaged Corn Fields?” 

The quality of drought-stressed corn silage can vary, but is usually 85% to 95% of the energy value of regular corn silage. With drought-stressed corn, caution should be used in harvesting if high nitrates are present. Ensiling can reduce nitrates by 40-60%.

For more information on feeding and pricing drought-damaged corn silage, please see these Nebraska Extension resources:

For more information on harvesting, storing and feeding corn silage, see the video presentations from the 2016 Silage for Beef Cattle Conference (at http://beef.unl.edu).