Monday, September 30, 2013

growing organic corn

Corn gets a bad name because it's associated with all of the stuff that people consider evil.  It's often a GMO, it's grown in huge monocrop farms, and it's used to produce stuff like corn syrup and ethanol, and every one of those things has someone that hates it. 
Organic corn row.  Note weeds between rows. 
  But we have to remember that, like grass and clover, corn is a plant, and it's a pretty good plant.  It's been popular here in America for at least 6 thousand years, and for a reason.  Acre for acre, it's hard to beat corn for feeding livestock. 

Conventional corn field, roundup ready corn.  No weeds.  None. 

So corn gets a bad reputation, but it's not corns fault.  There are varieties of corn that aren't GMO, that are not grown with chemicals, and, honestly, corn is  just a plant.  So when I'm looking at feeding cows, one of the common things that I see in cows diets is corn silage. 

Silage is just the whole corn plant chopped up.  Stalk, leaves, cob, the whole thing.  Chopped up fine and then typically used as a part of a ration for a dairy or beef cow.  I don't think that corn is evil, but if I'm going to grow corn, I'd like to do it with open-pollinated varieties and without chemical sprays.  Organically grown. 
Many of the weeds are palatable to cattle, so while it's not pretty, in my book it's ok. 

So today I spent some time talking with a farmer nearby who's growing some organic silage corn.  We talked about what he did to prepare his fields, and what his yields are, and generally speaking about what he had to do to make the crop work out for him.  Then we talked about the price bonus he gets from being organic.

The basic cow feed that I'm working on is some sort of grass hay (probably orchard grass because it grows well for many farmers here) some sort of legume (probably red clover or alfalfa because it grows well around here) and some sort of silage (corn, but also grass and legume silage). 

We do not get weather hot enough or dry enough to actually dry the hay in the fields (both grass and legume hay), at least not early in the season.  So most farmers here cut the grass wet and make haylage out of it.  They get it as dry as they can, and then pack it into air-tight bales and let it ferment a little; it comes out smelling a little like vinegar, and the cows seem to like it.  It also keeps fairly well wrapped; certainly a year, but most of the farmers talk about 2 years as being pretty common.  

The first cutting is made into haylage, and the 2nd and 3rd cuttings, the finer, leafier hay, gets cut and dried and baled as dry hay.  Some producers around here just wait until the weather turns warmer to make their first cutting, but I've found that the hay produced isn't very palatable to my animals.  Given the choice between a 2nd cutting and stemmy first cutting, they'll finish off the 2nd cutting completely. 

I don't know much about the production of forage, and that's why I'm spending months talking to other farmers around here and watching what they do to make theirs.  If I'm going to be feeding and milking animals, I need to get the diet right, and I'd like to have as little off-farm feed as I possibly can. 

the conventional corn silage is producing 27 tons per acre; at 40lbs a cow a day, that's 1350 cow-days per acre of feed, or basically enough forage for 3.5 cows per acre of corn.   So 20 acres of corn  will feed 74 cows, give or take...  that's about the right amount for a 40 cow dairy, including replacement heifers. 

I feel like this is a puzzle.  I'm slowing finding pieces that fit. 

So if you'd like to see some graphs about what kinds of corn are being used and other corn facts, check out this link.   I particularly liked the note that while a very large percentage of US corn is now GMO (presumably for increased yields) the yields haven't really changed all that much.  So the GMO yield thing isn't working as advertised, apparently. 


Across The Creek Farm said...

I had the opportunity to inspect an inspection of a small hand-milking Amish dairy in PA a couple years while training to be an organic inspector. The only thing they brought on to the farm was lime from a local quarry and minerals for the animals. It was pretty amazing.


Bruce King said...

Wouldn't that be a great goal?

George said...


That's what our farm does here in MD too. Everything that our beef cattle, and poultry eat, is raised here on the farm. The only inputs we purchase in are seed (not even every year as we clean/save our own too, vetch, rye, corn, soybeans mainly), and trace minerals to mix w/ the poultry feed, or free choice for cattle.

All certified organic. it CAN be done. Right now we're averaging around 100bu/ac of corn, mind you that is on 36" row spacing. I'm trying to get the owner to let us do 30"... but so far no go.

Rich said...

Even though cattle will eat weeds, you have a good chance of getting some off-tasting milk if you have dairy cows.

I don't know much about silage, but I thought that something like clover, vetch, etc. was often intercropped with the corn (especially in organic corn).

The clover or vetch would out compete the weeds (crop canopy is the best weed control), maintain fertility (a little bit of N-fixation is always good), and can also manage the taste of the milk (milk from clover-fed cows has to taste better than the milk form pigweed-fed cows).

Daniel said...

I really liked your post about corn. Im new to the blogger world, and have found people to be very friendly. I am getting some goats soon and am thinking I may be able to get some ideas from your post.

Here is a link to my blog should you be interested.

George said...

Our dairy cows eat all kinds of grass AND weeds, the milk is not an off flavor at all. Most weeds provide a specific trace mineral, and the cattle know this, and eat it free choice. Lambs Quarter, Dock, Mullein, Thistle etc...

As for the comment regarding intercropping w/ corn in organic production. Yes that is done at some farms, it depends on what the following crop is going to be however. No point in paying to lay down clover over 50 acres of corn when you're going to disc that corn stubble down for a rye or barley field next year...

Vetch chokes up a combine.. especially with a corn head on... if you're harvesting by hand, then go for it. We harvest vetch with barley, as it is easy to separate the two seed types, but I've never seen/or used it w/ corn.

George said...

I failed to mention Rich, that some weeds (I agree) can cause off flavored milk, namely the Allium genus.

I was speaking more towards, mullein, dock, thistle, pigweed etc.Anyhow, farm on !!