Drought: Corn Stalks Can Stretch Forage

Corn stalks

WOOSTER, Ohio –Ohio growers may find that after they’ve harvested their corn, there still may be some value left in the residue, an Ohio State University Extension educator said. 

With forage supplies tight this year, the cornstalks and grain residue that remains in the field after harvest can provide feed for livestock, said Rory Lewandowski, an agricultural and natural resources educator for OSU Extension.

Considering that an estimated 50 percent of the total corn plant yield remains in the field after harvest, those acres harvested for corn can represent a potential forage source that is often overlooked, he said.

That is significant, since the drought of 2012 has been one of the worst on record in Ohio, leaving many livestock producers short on hay and silage, Lewandowski said. The lack of substantial rainfall, extreme heat and dryness left many producers looking for any alternative forage supplies. 

“This corn residue is out there and sometimes not utilized at all,” he said, calling it an “overlooked resource that, especially in this type of year, can be a significant benefit for producers.”

While most of the harvest residue is the stalk, there are also leaves, husks, some corn grain and cobs that remain, with the amount of corn grain left on the field averaging some three bushels per acre, Lewandowski said.

“Drought-stressed corn often yields more grain in harvest residue because some of the stressed stalks are susceptible to breaking, lodging and dropping ears, leaving more stalks and ears that don’t pass through combine,” he said.

Often post-harvest residue is left on cropland simply because the farmer doesn't raise livestock, Lewandowski said. Those who do own livestock may not consider it because cornfields typically aren't fenced, he said.

“But by using an electrical fence, the livestock folks can let their cows graze harvested corn fields,” Lewandowski said. “It allows you to make use of some of these unused resources like corn stalks without having to invest a lot of time or money.”

Other tips to consider when using harvest residue as a potential forage supply:

  • Grazing rather than baling typically provides the best utilization of corn residue, with the best use gained when livestock graze the field as soon after harvest as possible.
  • Corn stalks and corn residue don't provide nutrients adequate for high production livestock such as dairy cows, young growing livestock or lactating beef cattle, sheep or goats. But it does well for dry cows, ewes or does that may be in early to mid-gestation.
  • Baling may be an acceptable option if you reduce particle length by chopping stalks before baling, which can increase forage utilization.
  • Growers can also use the corn residue as an ensiled product, wrapping bales in plastic, with corn residue at a moisture level of around 60 percent. It may be possible to push the moisture content to 55 percent, but the risk of poor fermentation increases with drier material.
Tracy Turner
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Rory Lewandowski