JUNEAU, Wis. – A building block to a successful dairy is the ration cows are fed every day, and the quality of ingredients in those rations is the cornerstone of that success. Growing the best corn silage possible, in the most economically efficient manner, is paramount to the equation. Three Wisconsin dairy producers shared their thoughts and experiences on everything corn silage on a recent segment of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Dairy Signal program.
    Joining PDPW’s Executive Director Shelly Mayer on the Dairy Signal were dairy producers Mitch Breunig of Mystic Valley Dairy in Sauk City, Brody Stapel of Double Dutch Dairy in Cedar Grove, and Brett Bonlender of Clover Hill Dairy in Campbellsport.    
    All three producers agreed there is nothing certain about growing corn for silage each year. They stressed the importance of selecting corn for silage-specific varieties such as high yield, high digestibility and high starch.
    “If you have a drought, corn silage is going to perform way different than if you have a lot of rain,” Breunig said. “We want to have a corn silage variety that can maybe thrive in both those environments. It’s tough, but you sort of have to use that as your selection criteria.”
    Breunig milks 400 cows on his family’s Dane County dairy and crops 1,050 acres, 650 of which are devoted to corn for silage, high-moisture corn and dry corn. The herd average is around 32,000 pounds of milk, and Breunig said his goal is to be at 110 pounds of energy corrected milk per cow.
    “We start with corn silage being the most important part of that situation,” Breunig said. “If we have a poor crop year, we can go down into that high-moisture corn variety and use that for silage, since it is similar genetics. We can do the same if it’s a really good silage year. We can use some of our silage corn for high-moisture corn. It gives us some flexibility.”
    He has fed a 2-to-1 corn silage to haylage ratio in his ration for the past five years. He strives to have his silage harvested with a three-quarter inch cut and a processing score at or near 70.
    “What the corn silage brings to the table is it gives us a less expensive ration with a nutrition profile that product brings to us,” Breunig said.
    All of Breunig’s silage is custom harvested and stored in three bunkers. This year will be the fourth year Breunig has used bunkers; he previously used bags but found the bunker allows for a more stable and consistent product.
    “Pack, pack, pack, pack; when you think you are done packing, go back and pack some more,” Breunig said of working with a bunker silo. “Packing is what makes good corn silage. You just have to have it packed.”
     Stapel milks 250 cows with his brother and farms about 1,100 acres in Sheboygan County and operates a beef herd. Their herd of Holsteins is averaging about 25,000 pounds of milk with a 3.9% butterfat and a 3% protein content.
    The farm Stapel and his brother purchased in 2012 had a 1970 freestall barn and six Harvestore silos. In 2016, they built a 90-by-200 blacktop pad for feed storage. They have been experimenting with lowering their plant population and using more cover crops to promote soil health along with an increased use of no-till cropping practices.
    Sustainability is paramount to Stapel. He said spending a lot on seed corn with $12 to $15 milk is not an option.
    “We have found a seed company that we have really come to like and respect, and we’ve stuck with them,” Stapel said. “We can’t sacrifice quality, but we need to be aware of the costs.”
    Stapel said seed selection can be tricky because the majority of corn breeders want a hard-kernel corn that is exportable.
    “That’s not what the dairyman wants,” Stapel said. “We want a soft kernel that is highly digestible.”
    Although they have always harvested their own silage, this year Stapel said they are having their silage custom harvested. He hopes it will shorten the harvest time, giving them more consistency and hopefully a better processed product.
    Stapel stressed that growing corn silage is a year-long process and is a cycle that keeps continuing.
    “It starts in September when you are chopping and evaluating and then buying your seed for next year in the fall,” Stapel said. “Silage is such an important crop, and you have one chance to make a crop each year.”
     Bonlender is the fifth generation on his family’s Fond du Lac County farm, cropping 3,400 acres, 1,800 of which are corn. The 2,150-cow herd consists of crosses of Montbéliarde, Viking Red and European Holstein. The farm is non-GMO, and their milk is made into cheese marketed as non-GMO.
    “We really like what we’ve seen from crossing these breeds,” Bonlender said. “Their health, their feet and legs, their udders and their components; it has been a learning curve learning to manage them.”
    Bonlender said he is not as concerned about getting high volumes of milk out of his cows, which average about 75 pounds per day, but is more concerned with the components as their milk goes to cheese production. The herd averages 4.3% butterfat and 3.7% protein.
    “We don’t feed as heavy of a corn silage diet because our animals don’t respond that well to it,” he said. “They are grazers by nature. We are probably more at a 1-to-1 ratio of corn silage to haylage. We also use some snaplage. We only feed about 48 pounds of dry matter per day.”
    Bonlender said his goals for his silage each year is to yield at least 30 tons per acre with about 35% to 40% starch, and to have the final product be highly digestible.
    The hilly topography of Bonlender’s farm requires him to be mindful of conservation cropping, and he uses a great deal of cover crops and contour stripping.
    “Listen to your crops, your ground and your animals,” he said. “Just because something is easy, it might not be the right thing to do. Take the extra step, listen to the things around your and try to do what is right.”