With drought conditions plaguing much of the country this past year, many producers have found ways to stretch their rations. Corn stover and soybean stubble can be a good source of feed or bedding when used properly, and a way to add value to your crop. A 160 bushel/acre corn crop will produce about 4.5 tons of stover/acre. There are costs to consider, and you will want to determine if the residue will be worth the time, fuel, wear on machinery, and effort it takes to gather it. Think carefully about harvest and transportation costs on a “per consumable ton” basis.
The straw can be used as a last resort as a filler to “dilute” other high quality feeds in a ration when more roughage is needed. Corn stover has more value as both a feed source and a bedding, although stalk palatability can be a problem. Corn stover is better adapted to mid-gestation beef cows or dairy heifers than for lactating dairy cows. Its feed value is optimal just after harvest, then drops off as it weathers in the field. Grazing is the best method for feeding, since livestock can eat husks and kernels that have fallen off during harvesting. Livestock often select the grain first, then the husks and leaves. For a planned corn stover grazing application, turnips or radishes can be interseeded (broadcast with high boy or aerial seeded) into the standing corn in August. Left to grow after corn harvest, the leafy brassicas will grow into the fall and make a good high-protein forage along with the residual stover.
Shredding the residue improves its potential and usability as both a feed and bedding. When used as a bedding, well-shredded material breaks down rapidly into rich compost.
Soybean straw in bedding uses can absorb more moisture than corn stover, but is more difficult to remove and compost. Corn stalks break down more readily, and when removed and formed into small, frequently-turned piles will degrade to compost within a few weeks. The piles can quickly heat up to 200 degrees F. They should be kept moist, and more moisture can be added if they heat up too quickly. Soybean straw piles don’t heat as fast as corn stover or get as hot. Using a fine straw chopper on the combine to shred the soybean stubble not only helps it degrade faster, but makes it easier to work with and spread. Finished compost can be spread on fields using a manure spreader.
While you can take advantage of the residue to add value to your farm into the winter, keep in mind a few of the costs and weigh them carefully when fitting them into your plan:
- Harvesting, handling, and storing
- Reduced soil cover over the winter, which potentially means more erosion. This may not apply if you harvest the residue early enough to get a cover crop in the ground.
- Less organic matter to improve soil health and feed microbes
- Removes some nutrients (including approx. 13-15 lbs N/dry ton of straw/stover, depending on the crop harvested)
Keep in mind that this type of feed may not be ideal for all forms of livestock, especially younger animals and lactating cows. One of the most important factors determining your success with this residue is your ability to grind or shred it and, if using as a feed, to mix it with more energy-dense material and mineral supplements.