Corn earning its keep on dairy operations in southern Alberta

ENERGY FOOD The high energy content of corn, along with its excellent digestibility, 
makes it a sought-after ration for milk producers

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You don’t need a global positioning system to find dairy farms in southern Alberta these days — just look for the cornfields.

Grain and silage corn have become dairy feed staples as producers search for the ideal rations to boost milk production.

“It is a highly digestible forage, but high energy is the key,” said Pete Houweling of Coaldale, whose family introduced corn to their dairy rations about 20 years ago.

Corn has a low protein level, making it a perfect mix for the high volumes of alfalfa fed daily to dairy cattle.

“Corn gives us a balanced diet and a good blend,” said Houweling.

Improved varieties, including Round-Up Ready ones and those requiring lower heat units, are important in southern Alberta, especially west of Barnwell (about 15 kilometres east of Lethbridge), where heat units aren’t as plentiful.

Houweling grows a mix of grain and silage corn, and last year upped his grain corn acreage because of newer low-heat-unit varieties. The sweet spot for him is 2100 units. Although he’s tried varieties requiring 2300 heat units, the longer growing season adds to the risk. When it works, yields are generally higher considering 45 per cent of the nutrition comes from the filled cob. But that means harvest must be completed before frost hits, said Houweling.

Spring frost is also a worry, but with the first five leaves produced underground, a corn crop written off by some can come back and produce a food yield. Carry-over from one year to the next is the usual practice because the nutrient component of corn silage increases in the pit. Corn from one year’s harvest won’t usually be used until the following January, said Houweling.

Gerald Slomp learned the hard way to produce enough corn silage on his own farm to meet his dairy ration needs.

“We ran out of corn silage one year, and after we switched to barley silage, our milk production dropped,” said the producer from Iron Springs.

“Now, we make sure we grow enough.”

Weather in his area is a worry, he said, although a good crop is expected four out of every five years, and the 2012 crop was exceptional. One of his corn crops was hit with early frost yet still produced one of his highest-ever yields.

Corn production requires the use of a centre pivot sprinkler for irrigation, a system that can clear the tall stalks and still provide uniform water application. That also applies to grain corn, a variety Slomp plans to test this year. He said he likes the movement in plant breeding to find varieties to meet special needs, such as corn borer resistance and more designed for Roundup and Liberty Link programs. This becomes more important, he said, because the expansion of corn production in southern Alberta will increase the odds of disease problems.

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