Corn development has accelerated with the recent warm temperatures. Silage harvest has begun in some parts of Ohio with earlier planting dates. Proper harvest timing is critical because it ensures the proper dry matter content required for high quality preservation, which in turn results in good animal performance and lower feed costs.
Harvesting corn too wet (low dry matter content) results in souring, seepage, and storage losses of the silage with reduced animal intake. Harvesting too dry (high dry matter content) promotes mold development because the silage cannot be adequately packed to exclude oxygen. Harvesting too dry also results in lower energy concentrations and reduced protein digestibility.
Corn silage that is too dry is almost always worse than corn silage that is slightly too wet. So if you are uncertain about the dry matter content, it is usually better to err on chopping a little early rather than a little late. Follow the guidelines below to be more confident in your assessment.
Harvest Moisture Guidelines
Corn preserved between 30 and 38% dry matter (62 to 70% moisture) generally provides excellent silage fermentation and animal performance. The optimal dry matter content varies with type of storage structure (Table 1).
Table 1. Optimal dry matter contents for different storage structures.
Type of Structure
Optimal % dry matter
30 to 35
30 to 38
Upright, top unloading
33 to 38
Upright, bottom unloading
35 to 40*
The higher DM concentration for bottom unloading silos is a compromise between
forage quality and unloader requirements
Kernel stage not a reliable guide for timing silage harvest
Dry matter content of whole plant corn varies with maturity. Research has shown that the position of the kernel milk-line is NOT a reliable indicator for determining harvest timing. Geographic location, planting date, hybrid selection, and weather conditions affect the relationship between kernel milk-line position and whole plant dry matter content. In a Wisconsin study, 82% of the hybrids tested exhibited a poor relationship between kernel milk-line stage and whole-plant % dry matter. In Ohio we have seen considerable variation in plant dry matter content within a given kernel milk-line stage.
Appearance of the kernels should only be used as a guide of when to begin sampling for dry matter content, see section below When to Begin Field Sampling.
Determining Silage Moisture
The only reliable method of determining the optimal time to harvest corn silage is to sample and directly measure the % dry matter of whole plants. This information combined with average whole plant dry-down rates can be used to roughly predict the proper time to chop corn silage.
How to Sample Fields
Collect about 5 representative plants from the entire field, from areas with representative plant population and not from edge rows. Collect separate samples from areas that may have different dry down rates, such as swales, knolls. The moisture concentrations of plants can vary within a field (plants will be wetter in low lying area and drier on knolls) and this should be considered when collecting your sample plants.
As soon as the plants are collected, chop them uniformly (using a cleaver, machete, chipper shredder, or silage chopper) and mix thoroughly to obtain a sample with representative grain to stover ratios for dry matter determination. Put representative sample in a plastic bag and keep it cool (refrigerate if possible). Some farmers prefer sampling only 2 or 3 plants without any additional sub-sampling to reduce the chances of a non-representative grain to stover ratio that can affect the results. In this case, choosing representative plants is even more critical.
Determine the dry matter content by drying the plant material using a Koster oven tester, microwave, convection oven, a vortex dryer, or taking to a lab. For more details on these and other methods, see the following links:
Make sure the sample does not dry down and keep it cool until the dry matter determination is performed. The accuracy of the dry matter value is largely affected by the care taken in sampling, drying, and weighing the samples. Whole kernels and cob pieces can be difficult to dry completely without burning the leaf tissue.
From our work, on-farm measurement of dry matter is probably only accurate to +/- 2 units. So if you measure a DM of 30% it could easily be 28-32%. Keep this in mind as you plan harvest timing.
When to Begin Field Sampling
We know that kernel milk stage is NOT reliable for determining the actual harvest date, but its appearance is a useful indicator of when to begin sampling fields to measure plant dry matter content.
Corn in Ohio should be first sampled to measure dry matter at full dent stage (100% milk, no kernel milk-line) for conventional tower or bunker silos. Full dent stage happens about 40 days after silking in Ohio. For sealed (oxygen-limited) tower silos begin sampling when the milk-line is one-fourth down the kernel (75% milk remaining). It is important to begin sampling early as a precaution against variation in dry down. (Photo: The milk-line of on these ears is about one-fourth to one-third down the kernel. This stage might be about right for oxygen limited silos but could be too late for conventional tower or bunker silos.)
Predicting the Harvest Date
Once whole-plant % dry matter is determined, use an average dry down rate of 0.5% unit per day to estimate days until the optimal harvest moisture is reached. For example, if a given field measures 30% dry matter at the first sampling date, and the target dry matter is 35% for harvest, then the field must gain an additional 5% units of dry matter, thus requiring an estimated 10 days (5% units divided by 0.5 unit change per day).
This procedure provides only a rough estimate for the harvest date. Many factors affect dry down rate, such as hybrid, planting date, general health of the crop, landscape position, soil type, and weather conditions. Early planted fields and hot and dry conditions can accelerate dry down rates to 0.8 to 1.0 % unit per day. Fields should be monitored closely and more frequently under those conditions. As mentioned above, corn silage that is slightly too dry is usually worse than corn silage that is slightly too wet. So harvesting a little early is usually better than waiting too long.
More Management Guidelines
For additional details on management of corn silage, see the article by Bill Weiss in the Buckeye Dairy News (August 2010), available online at http://dairy.osu.edu/bdnews/Volume%2012%20issue%203%20files/Volume%2012%20Issue%203.html#Harvesting.