Pasture and Forage Minute: Understanding Nitrate Scores, Corn Silage Pricing

Loading corn silage after harvest
In addition to associated costs, producers considering harvesting drought-stressed corn should also evaluate the impact of doing so on future crop production before making a final decision.

Pasture and Forage Minute: Understanding Nitrate Scores, Corn Silage Pricing

Nitrate Nitrogen or Nitrate

By Ben Beckman

A call I often get in my office this time of year is, “I just got my forage test results back with a nitrate score was 3,000. Am I in trouble?”

Unfortunately, with just this information, I’m unable to provide a useful answer. So the first question I ask in response is, “Was this reported as nitrates or as nitrate nitrogen?”

Why does the distinction matter? Well, for our example, if the score was 3,000 parts per million of nitrate nitrogen, the forage may have a nitrate concentration nearly 50% higher than potentially toxic levels for nitrate nitrogen. Feeding this to cattle without precautions would be risky.

However, if the score was 3,000 parts per million of nitrate, there’s no cause for concern, as this is less than one-third the danger level for nitrates. The same score or value can range from quite dangerous to perfectly safe depending on how it is reported.

Why such a difference? It comes down to how each individual laboratory tests for and reports nitrate results. When a laboratory reports directly the concentration of nitrate, it refers specifically to the nitrate ion, which is designated chemically as NO3-. Concerns for nitrate ion toxicity begin around 9,000 to 10,000 parts per million.

Some labs, though, report the amount of nitrogen that is in the nitrate ion as nitrate nitrogen, shown chemically as NO3-N. Nitrate is one part nitrogen and three parts oxygen, so much less nitrate nitrogen is needed to produce the same effect as the entire nitrate ion. As a result, the danger level for nitrate nitrogen begins somewhere between 2,000 and 2,300 ppm.

Is one method better than the other? No — both yield the same result and both can determine the safety of your feed. 

Next time you test for nitrates, look closely at the way your reports nitrate results. Then, if you want to talk with someone about the safety of your forage, you can be sure both of you are talking the same language.

Winter Annual Forages

By Jerry Volesky

Are you planting or at least thinking about planting wheat, rye or triticale for forage next spring? Which of these small grains should you plant this fall? Let’s look at some of their characteristics to help you select.

Cereal rye is your best choice for the earliest grazing possible. Because it’s early, it also may be the best match for double cropping. Some varieties provide quite a bit of fall growth too, if planted early. Rye also may be the most reliable when planted under stressful conditions. But it has some drawbacks. It turns stemmy and matures much earlier than wheat or triticale, losing feed value and palatability earlier in the spring. Plus, wheat grain producers don’t want it contaminating fields next year.

Triticale holds onto its feed value best into late spring. This makes it well-suited for hay and silage, or for stretching grazing well into June if you don’t mind starting two or three weeks later compared to rye. But triticale tends to be a bit more susceptible to winter injury.

Winter wheat has been the small grain of choice for winter and spring grazing in the southern Plains, where higher winter temperatures allow growth to continue, although slowly. Up here where wheat goes dormant, its carrying capacity is not as high as triticale or rye. But it is top quality before stems develop, and it’s the clear choice if you want the double use as early pasture and then for grain.

So, there it is. Rye for early pasture, triticale for hay, silage or later grazing, and wheat for grazing plus grain. You may have other factors affecting your choice, but in general, these guidelines work well.  

Corn Silage Pricing

By Shannon Sand

With ongoing drought throughout the state, some people have started wondering about pricing corn silage. According to UNL research, corn silage priced standing in the field before harvest would be valued at 7.65 times the price per bushel of corn, where a ton of corn silage is harvested at 60-65% moisture. For example, given the historical corn basis, corn is estimated to be near $5.00/ bushel at harvest in Nebraska. This puts corn at $38.25 per ton, which accounts for not having to combine or haul grain to market but should also be harvest corn prices as we add storage costs to silage.

According to the 2022 Nebraska farm custom rates publication, the average for harvest, hauling and packing of corn silage was $13.50 per ton. At $38.25 per ton plus $13.50 per ton for custom work, this gives us $51.75 per ton in the pile. When $3.00 per ton is added for storage, the price is now $54.75.

Harvesting drought-stressed corn as silage may be an option to salvage the crop and produce needed forage. Producers considering harvesting drought-stressed corn should also evaluate the impact of doing so on future crop production. For additional tools and resources about pricing corn silage, visit UNL Beef.

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