Friday, February 1, 2013

Feeding corn silage

Normally we can grow and bale plenty of hay in the spring, summer, and fall to feed our cows through the winter. The summer of 2012 was a little different. Southwestern Indiana (and most of the midwest) was hit by a bad drought. Our cows are usually on pasture all summer, but this year we had to feed them hay because the grass in the pasture didn’t grow. Which also meant that the grass in the hay fields didn’t grow. We were afraid that we were going to be short on hay this winter, so we needed to come up with other options to keep our girls fed and happy in the cold weather.

eating silage
So we tried our hands at silage for the first time! Silage is made from corn plants. Instead of just picking the ear (like you would for sweet corn or field corn), the entire plant is harvested and chopped into small pieces. The chopped corn gets put in a giant pile, covered with tarps, and left alone for a while. The timing depends on the amount of corn that has been chopped, and the area of your pile. You want to keep all the air out of your silage pile so it ferments. (Sort of like making beer or wine. Sort of. But not as yummy at the end.)

When it’s ready, silage has a very distinctive smell. It smells like fermented corn. Sort of sour, sort of spicy… It’s hard to describe. It really just smells like silage.

Anyway, it should also have this straw/golden-brown color. Think of it as corn flakes for cows. (Actually, it’s pretty sweet. Maybe it’s more like frosted flakes for cows.)

silage close-up
We have been using this silage pile for a few weeks to keep the girls fed. We uncover the part we need, scoop out what we’re going to feed that day, and then pull the tarp back down tight over the rest of the silage to keep it fresh for the next day.

uncovering the silage pile
We use a tractor to scoop out one day’s worth of silage at a time.

scooping silage
When the corn plants are fermenting, the silage gets very warm. As Farmer Doc stirs up the silage pile with the tractor bucket the steam escapes from the warm center of the pile.

steamy silage
Other than the sour smell, this might make for a good facial!

scoop full of silage
I take that back. I got a bunch of steam and silage in my face taking this shot. Not a good facial at all.

Farmer Doc in the tractor
The silage gets piled in the back of the wagon, and we take it down the hill to the cows.

(This “wagon” is actually a manure spreader. This is not how most people feed silage. But since this was our first year, and we only planned on feeding silage for 4-6 weeks, we made due with equipment that we already had and could borrow. If we start feeding silage more often, we’ll need to invest in some different storage and feeding equipment. For this year, this setup is working just fine.)

silage into the wagon
The cows are in a pasture down the hill and across the road from where the silage pile is stored. They heard the tractor start up, and were keeping an eye to see when it would be headed in their direction.

cows through the trees
They know what this wagon is bringing, and they head right over!

headed towards silage
Farmer Doc turns on a series of belts in the wagon, and the silage is dumped out on the ground behind him.

feeding silage
The cows come right up to the back of the wagon. They know this is the good stuff!

behind the silage wagon
Farmer Doc spreads the silage in a line across the pasture so there is plenty of room for all the cows to eat at the same time.

follow the wagon
Even the calves get into it. They know to stay towards the back of the line so they don’t get trampled by the big mamas.

cows lined up
“Hey! I don’t watch you eat, do I? Don’t judge me!”

thanks for lunch
Did I mention that we do all of this while slopping around in the mud? Yep. It’s muddy. You’ll definitely want to have your big-girl boots on when you do this job!

muddy tracks
What did you have for breakfast today?


  1. Marybeth That was a good post. Good pictures. Please tell me what camera you use. I need to get a new one. Congrats on the FB award.

  2. Ann – This is the camera that I use:
    It’s a DSLR, not a point-and-shoot, so it’s a pricier model, but I love it!!

  3. Educational story. Brought to mind our local "Scandal of the Cows in the Mud" story of several years back. Due to the terrible conditions outside one farmer's barn. . Mud 5 inches deep for weeks on end and malnourished, dirty cows... our local animal shelter confiscated 100 cows. Pictures of the cows were on the front page of the local local paper, horrifying every farmer in the county... with their own muddy patches and cows matching the photos in the paper. The cows were completely "rehabilitated" within a week and retired to a sanctuary in California. The staff were eventually driven from the positions they held after outraged farmers explained that every farmer has mud outside the barn door and almost every where else the herd congregated for any length of time.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Amy. The weather is one thing we have no control over, but need to do our best to take care of our animals in spite of what Mother Nature throws at us. When animals live outside, mud is a way of life. We do our best to maintain good drainage and give them plenty of “dry land,” but mud is going to happen no matter what we do! Cows are herd animals and they tend to cluster together, even if they have plenty of space to spread out. Their clustering and walking on the same parts of ground keeps it thawed (in the winter) and muddy for much of the year!


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