Feeding: BMR corn silage fuels a high-forage dairy ration

David Smithgall, Perry, N.Y., has grown brown midrib corn for 10 years, making the silage a bigger part of his dairy’s high-forage ration.

By Susan Harlow

This is the tenth year of growing brown midrib (BMR) corn for David Smithgall, who dairies in Perry, N.Y., with his wife, Mindy, and son, Chris. They grow 2,300 acres of corn, grass and alfalfa, much of it to feed their 980-head milking herd.

Smithgall was introduced to BMR about 10 years ago, at World Dairy Expo, when he toured Crave Brothers Farm, Waterloo, Wis. According to Smithgall, trying out new technologies is essential for dairy producers.

“I want to be one of the first to try to explore and capitalize on new technology,” he said. “But not too much, because I want consistency in my bunk.”

Since being introduced to the crop technology, it’s performed well for him, allowing him to feed a higher forage ration, and about 5% less grain.

BMR provides 10% more digestibility than conventional hybrids, said Smithgall, who now feeds a diet that’s 63% forage, half of which is BMR corn. “But I think we can push that to 70% when we’re predominantly BMR,” he said.

Originally, the yield lag kept Smithgall  away from planting too much BMR, but that lag has shrunk from 15% when BMR hybrids were first introduced to 5% now. He has gradually increased his BMR acreage over the years, with a goal of raising all BMR hybrids once his herd size lines up with crop acreage.

“We try to use all our sod-killed land for BMR, so I can get the highest return on my investment,” he said. “But the yield lag isn’t as steep as it used to be, so I’m venturing out, using it for second- and third-year corn.”

By mid-September, he had yet to harvest his 2009 BMR crop. A cold July probably reduced ear size and yields for all varieties, he said.

Smithgall usually has all his corn seed purchased by Nov. 1, selecting 100-day and 106-day hybrids. He bases much of his choice on hybrid trial results, mostly from Western New York Crop Management Association, because it’s a neutral entity. “That takes out some of the ‘noise,’” Smithgall said. “It’s site-specific. Growing degree days can change hugely; just on my land it changes a lot.”

He also grows dual-purpose conventional hybrids, giving him some flexibility if Mother Nature is fickle. “I have the luxury of extra ground for grain corn, but with dual-purpose, if I have a tough year, I can shell it for high-moisture corn or chop it for silage.”

Incorporating BMR into his dairy hasn’t always gone smoothly. “I’m always reaching for new technology, but my pet peeve is the learning curve, and for BMR that learning curve is expensive, at $250/bag. The management for BMR is all different.”

Harvest and feeding management lessons Smithgall learned include:

• chop length. BMR requires a finer length of cut than conventional hybrids.

• harvest moisture content. “The plant will look dry; you’ll chop it and it’s still wet,” said Smithgall, who relies on three Koster testers to decide when the crop is ready to chop.

• the effective fiber part of the plant isn’t as predominant, so he had to learn how to optimize feeding BMR, especially for fresh cows. He now feeds more BMR to fresh cows and less to dry cows, which don’t need as much digestibility. He monitors cud chewing, manure, and milk components.

Harvesting and storing BMR corn separate from conventional hybrids gives the biggest bang for his buck, Smithgall said. “I believe in site-specific feeding to where cows are in their lactations,” he said. He feeds his six milking groups two different rations – a fresh cow diet that’s high in dry hay, and a ration for lower producers, with more conventional corn silage.

BMR hybrids are now offered with triple-stacked traits for glyphosate resistance and insect resistance. Smithgall planted eight bags this season. If he doesn’t see much yield difference, he plans to plant all BMR triple-stacked hybrids next year.

“That will protect against most other environmental problems,” he said. “I used to think triple stack after sod was a waste of money. But this year, they found cutworm on a neighbor’s corn. (Triple stack) protected us, even on first-year corn.” That saved the cost of spraying for cutworm.

Smithgall has used zone tillage for three years, saying it has saved him as much money as any technology. “We have healthier soil with less cost incurred, especially in a dry year.”

Ten years ago, when Smithgall first began experimenting with BMR hybrids, local nutritionists knew little about it. But most area nutritionists are now familiar with the technology. And through trial and error, Smithgall has made it work for his dairy.


The University Crop Testing Alliance compiles summaries of major crop field trials conducted by universities in 13 states. Visit www.agry.purdue.edu/pcpp/UCTA/index.html.

•Vermont: http://pss.uvm.edu/vtcrops/

• Cornell: http://plbrgen.cals.cornell.edu/cals/pbg/programs/departmental/corn/

• Florida: http://animal.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/CSFD/CSFD/2008Agenda.shtml

• Georgia: www.swvt.uga.edu/2009/sm09/AP100-contents.pdf.