Published on 06/17/98

Some Georgia Farmers Feeding Dryland Corn to Cattle

Farmers in parts of Georgia have given up on their corn. With hardly any rain for weeks, there's little chance their fields will produce enough grain for harvest.

A University of Georgia expert said some of the farmers may consider harvesting the plants themselves.

"Many fields of dryland (nonirrigated) corn didn't get enough rain at an especially critical stage for optimum grain formation," said Robert Stewart , an animal scientist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "Some of these fields are being zeroed out for insurance."

Crop losses could be costly. The Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service last week listed 12 percent of the state corn crop, about 70,000 acres, in "very poor" condition. Average yields on that many acres would bring farmers about $23 million.

But Stewart said the corn plants can be good feed for the farmers' cattle.

"Drought-stressed corn has a surprisingly high nutrient content," he said. "The total digestible nutrients will be slightly reduced. But protein will likely be higher than normal corn for silage. The nutrient content will be similar to small grain silage."

Stewart tells farmers they can let their cattle graze the corn if it's fenced in adequately and has a water source. But he said farmers should first test the corn for nitrate content.

"Drought-stressed corn is prone to accumulate nitrate," he said. "Green-chopped corn or grazed corn could be dangerous."

Even if nitrate levels permit grazing, Stewart tells farmers to let cows have a fill of hay before turning them onto corn. He advises them to limit-graze corn for two to four hours a day for the first week.

Probably the best way to use the corn, Stewart said, is to harvest it for silage. That's especially true if farmers need to try growing a second crop on the land.

Silage is finely chopped plant fodder stored in an airtight place and allowed to ferment into a succulent winter feed for cattle.

If the farmers don't have a silo or a trench or bunker for storing silage, Stewart tells them to use their imagination in designing a homemade structure.

"The important thing is to pile the mass with the least surface area possible," he said. "Cover it with plastic. Sealing is important."

Stewart tells growers to store the silage in fields where the cattle will be, with a temporary fence around it. "Then when it's needed, remove the fence and let the cows eat their way through the stack."

Even for corn harvested for silage, farmers should test the corn for nitrate. "Fortunately, the ensiling process removes 50 percent of the existing nitrate," Stewart said.

The nitrate level needs to be no higher than 5,000 ppm for pregnant cows or 10,000 ppm for any cattle.

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.