I often field questions about common farming practices that are often a mystery to those who don't live or work on a farm. With larger farms, larger equipment and farm machinery is required to efficiently till, plant, fertilize and harvest the increasingly larger quantities of feed required. On top of that, some of the newer methods of crop harvesting are much different from the old days. Large white tubes lining the roadside, huge mounds of black plastic covered with old tires and huge rectangular bales of hay on tractor trailers are common sights on today's modern farms.
For the local dairy farmers who depend on the quality of their crops to make milk, hay harvesting nowadays is usually done by making haylage. Haylage is hay that is mowed and harvested while still at a high enough moisture content to support fermentation. It can be chopped and ensiled in silos, bunks or ag bags; or it can be baled as large round bales that are wrapped in plastic or stuffed into giant tubes. The purpose of the silos or plastic tubing is to exclude oxygen from the forage to allow for fermentation. Lactobacillus bacteria convert the carbohydrates in the plants into lactic acid. They continue to produce lactic acid and lower the pH of the forage until they can no longer function. At this point, the hay is essentially pickled and can be stored for quite some time without loss of quality.
The silage-making process has several benefits. One of the major advantages is that the hay crop can be harvested when it is ready during almost any weather conditions. In order to harvest high-quality forage, it must be cut early in the spring to maximize the protein, digestibility and palatability of the feed. Without having to wait for three or four days of hot and sunny weather, farmers can cut and harvest their hay crop in 24 to 36 hours or less. This year, local farmers had to deal with the rain and saturated fields in the early spring and then the heat and drought during the summer. Many fields were still too wet to start the harvest in mid May when forage quality was at its peak. With a 30-35 day harvest schedule for high-quality crops such as alfalfa, this summer's weather made it difficult for some farmers to harvest three or four cuts during the summer and early fall harvest season.
Corn silage is similarly harvested and ensiled, most commonly in the huge mounds that are created by piling and packing with large tractors. Most of our area corn is harvested by chopping the entire corn plant, leaving the familiar fields of short stubble. Large wagons or trucks deliver the chopped corn to the farm where it is blown up into silos, packed into long plastic tubes or more commonly piled and packed into bunk silos or mounds. After packing, the plastic excludes the oxygen and the old tires keep the plastic from blowing away in the wind. Corn silage is popular forage for dairy cattle because it is high in energy and palatability and complements the higher-protein alfalfa haylage in a balanced dairy ration. While the slightly pungent, vinegar smell of corn silage may not smell appetizing to you, cows love corn silage and it is a crucial part of most dairy farms' feeding program. After a slow start planting and then a mid-summer drought, the corn was doing well until Tropical Storm Irene blew through and caused significant damage to many area fields. Many fields of the taller silage corn was knocked almost flat and was very difficult to harvest.
Since our North Country growing season is short, dairy farmers depend on these stored feeds to maintain consistent milk production. By timely harvesting and proper ensiling of forages, cows can be fed a consistent diet year-round. And while today's cows are less often pastured outside, the forages that are ensiled and fed inside are often more palatable and of higher quality than could be obtained in the more traditional grazing scenario.
The good old days of summer pasture usually ended up providing forage of low quality, low quantity and resulted in low milk production. In today's modern dairy farming, the high-quality stored forages result in ever better diets and increasing milk production.
Peter Hagar, agriculture program educator and Energy $mart Communities collaborator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, No. 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450, fax: 561-0183 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.