Row spacings, varieties differ in corn silage

Wisconsin State Farmer


Corn silage is an important crop on dairy farms, but there are numerous varieties available and many strategies for planting, harvesting and storing it.

Fond du Lac — Corn harvested for silage is an important feed crop in Wisconsin, especially for dairy producers.

The crop provides livestock producers with a high-yielding, relatively consistent source of forage and the animals with a highly digestible and palatable feed.

Corn silage serves as a high-energy forage for dairy cows. This is most important for high-producing herds and on farms experiencing problems with making or buying high quality hay crop forage.

During the annual Dairy Forage Day in Fond du Lac, four area farmers shared their corn silage strategies and described how they use corn silage on their farms.


A panel of Fond du Lac area producers shared their corn silage strategies during the Fond du Lac Forage Day recently.  Panelists included (left to right) Burt Thome, feed manager at J & J Pickart Dairy; Steve Abel of Abel Dairy Farms; Jim Senn, Senland Farms, and Joe Bonlender, Clover Hill Dairy.

Steve Abel of Abel Dairy in Eden uses all Brown Midrib (BMR) corn hybrids for silage, growing it on 20-inch rows. He depends on corn silage as a major part of the ration for his 1,600 cows.

The Abels, including Allen, Steve and Bill, raise 1,100 acres of corn silage, utilizing one-third of their farming acres for the crop.

They chop their corn with a shredlage processor and store the feed in bunkers.

“We have planted in 20-inch rows for 20 years," Abel said. "It provides a good canopy for weed control, and we can push the population. Post-emergence spraying can be a challenge, though.”

While many producers say standability is an issue for BMR corn, Abel said it has not been an issue on his farm.

“We like BMR because our nutritionist likes it," Abel said. "It’s the most digestible.”

He admitted there is a yield drag, but he feels he gets more out of his feed with this type. He also noted it is important to have good fertility and moisture and said varieties keep improving.

Other options

By contrast, Joe Bonlender of Clover Hill Dairy at Campbellsport prefers to plant nonBMR hybrids in 30-inch rows. Together with Brett and Gary Bonlender and Sara O’Brien, the family raises 2,000 dairy cows, all their young stock and finish out 500-600 steers a year.

They crop 3,000 acres with 600 acres devoted to corn silage and 500 acres to snaplage. 

The harvest their corn silage with a John Deere chopper with a kernel processor and store it in bunkers and some in Ag Bags.

“We were down to 15-inch rows and then 20 inch, but then we went back to 30 inch," Bonlender said. "We are big believers in foliar feeding, and spraying works better with 30-inch rows. We also had standability issues with BMR corn.”

Bonlender has a two-tier planting system with early corn going in before rye harvest and then later corn going in on the rye ground.

“Typically the second planting doesn’t have as much northern leaf blight as the early," he said. "We apply a fungicide to corn that needs it along with our last foliar feeding.”

While they may alter maturity dates according to when they are able to get the corn planted, Bonlender said they choose varieties that can work for either corn silage or high moisture corn. 

Burt Thome is the feed manager at J & J Pickart Dairy, operated by Jeff and John Pickart. The farm has 630 milk cows and 800 acres of crop land. Of those acres, 450 are devoted to corn silage.

Thome said they raise all their silage corn in 20-inch row spacings. They like the 20-inch rows because it allows them to push the populations without stressing the corn. 

He admits that spraying and spreading fertilizer is harder with 20-inch rows. As a result, they do all pre-emergent spraying.

“We need to get everything done up front," he said. "It’s hard to come back with more if it is needed.”

Hills a challenge

Jim Senn of Senland Farms has 320 cows and 340 heifers. They crop 850 acres with 200 of them devoted to corn silage.

Senn said all silage and first-crop hay is custom harvested and stored in a big drive-over pile. They chop the rest and store it in bags.

Since 2012, corn silage has been in the drive-over pile, and first-crop hay was in the drive-over pile since 2015.

All silage corn is currently Jung’s HDS (highly digestible silage) Silage Specific. The Senns stopped using BMR hybrids after 2011.

“We like the soft kernel leafy variety we now have," Senn said. "We moved away from the BMR because we want all one variety since we’re putting it all on the same pile. We have no way of segregating it.”

Senn has planted in 30-inch rows since 1999. Before that, he had 38-inch rows.

“With our hills, it’s hard to stay in the rows if we go narrow," he said. "We plant our corn at 28,000 population like the company recommends for the seed.

“It’s hard to come back and put anything on without damaging corn on our hillsides, even with 30-inch rows. On flat fields, we are able to come back.”

Thome said they put inoculants on everything — haylage and corn silage — and they use as many packing tractors as they can to make sure it is packed good and covered properly. They utilize custom harvesting to get the feed in and covered quickly.

Abel said they do their own chopping and use high-quality inoculants.

Senn said the change to a big drive-over pile improved the quality of their feed. This year they were able to get all of their corn silage harvested and covered before the rain began.

All four dairy producers utilize manure for their fertilizer. Abel pointed out that there is a definite advantage to fall-applied manure. He said he flew a drone over the corn silage fields and observed much better color and progress in the fields that had fall-applied manure than those with spring-applied.

 All are also considering some form of variable-rate technology for planting and applying manure in the future and use it to some extent already.