The drought of 2012 will be one for the record books and for livestock owners the drought is already affecting winter cattle feed options.

Competition for scarce hay supplies is driving the price for even low-quality hay to record highs. At hay auctions around the Wayne County, OH, area, for instance, it wasn’t uncommon to see lots of hay selling for $400/ton or higher in August.

With those kinds of prices, it’s not easy to make a forage-purchase decision. So, what cattle feed options can be considered to feed the cowherd through the winter?

I recently had a phone call from a beef producer asking about the use of corn silage. He wanted to know how much could be fed to a cow, what kind of nutrient levels to expect and how feasible it might be to purchase and haul silage left over from a previous year. I decided to make some phone calls to some Ohio State University Extension specialists to get their input on these questions.

Conversation with Steve Boyles

My first phone call was to Extension beef specialist Steve Boyles to learn his recommendations for feeding corn silage. Well-eared, good quality corn silage will have a crude protein (CP) content somewhere around 9%, with a total digestible nutrient (TDN) content of about 68%.

Silage made from drought-stressed corn doesn’t have the same nutrient values. Energy content (TDN) will be lower. How much lower depends upon the amount of corn grain that developed.

Fiber levels will also be higher since there are fewer corn ears. On the other hand, CP values may be 1-2 units higher.

All in all, if drought-stressed corn is chopped at the proper moisture content, it can make good silage. Boyles says feeding corn silage free-choice to beef cows will likely result in cattle consuming an excess of energy. In this case, monitor the body condition score of the cow; if cows begin to put on extra condition, back off the amount fed.

Another way to use corn silage rather than feeding it free-choice is to use it as the main portion of the cattle feed ration, with a little bit of hay and maybe some protein supplementation thrown in. This requires knowing cow nutrient requirements and nutrient values of the corn silage and hay. Nutrient requirements of a 1200-lb. cow for mid-gestation and late-gestation are given in the following table:


Mid Gestation

Late Gestation

Cow weight

CP (lbs/day)

TDN (lbs/day)

CP (lbs/day)

TDN (lbs/day)






 While we talked on the phone, Boyles used a computer program and book values for good-quality corn silage and mature fescue hay to develop a ration. The ration program fed 40 lbs. of the corn silage on an as-fed basis with a small amount of hay. Figuring corn silage at 35% dry matter (DM) and using the values mentioned earlier in this article, this ration provides about 9.5 lbs. of TDN and 1.26 lbs. of CP.

To meet the remaining need in mid-gestation will require about 3.5 lbs. of hay/cow (using a CP content of 9% and a TDN value of 50%). This will result in the CP requirement being met and the TDN requirement being exceeded by 1 lb./day.

In late gestation, feeding this same amount of corn silage (40 lbs. as fed, or 14 lbs. on a DM basis) will require that about 6.5 lbs. of hay be fed to meet the nutrient shortfall.

Boyles then plugged in a lower-quality silage with few ears; similar to what might be seen in drought conditions. In this case, the program fed corn silage at 20 lbs. as fed (7 lbs. DM), 12 lbs. of mature fescue hay, and 1/3 lb. of soybean meal. More or less silage can be fed depending upon the needs of the cows and your supply of cattle feed.

Boyles also stressed that a forage analysis of the hay is important in formulating accurate rations. Testing the corn silage is probably also a good idea, particularly if the quality is lower due to the drought.

While smaller cow-calf producers may not be set up to handle and feed corn silage. He suggested that they consider other cattle feed options, which I will cover later in this article.