Featured Farmer: Tom Van Assalt
As summer winds down, South Dakota gardens and farmers markets are overflowing with fresh produce, which also means many of us are busy canning, freezing or pickling so that we can enjoy those fruits and vegetables all year long.
South Dakota beef and dairy producers are gearing up for something very similar, although on a much larger scale than the canning we’re doing in our home kitchens. Each year, South Dakota farmers harvest about 350,000 acres of corn for silage, producing about 6 million tons of feed for dairy and beef cattle. Just like preserving foods at home, farmers must follow a careful process to ensure the safety and quality of the crops so that it is a good nutrition source for cattle throughout the year.
Tom Van Assalt from Colton, South Dakota, is a beef nutritionist and consultant has owned Cattleplus Consulting since 2008. He works with South Dakota farmers who raise and finish beef cattle, helping them design and manage their animals’ feed rations, or diets, to ensure they stay healthy and grow as expected.
“Nutrition is key to animals’ performance and well-being,” said Tom. “A healthy rumen has benefits for cattle’s immune systems, so not only is good nutrition important for their beef production, it is important for their health and wellbeing. That results in better quality beef for consumers.”
Tom also works with farmers to develop rations that make the most of the crops they grow themselves, including hay and corn silage.
“We take a look at the farm’s inventory of feed ingredients and test them for nutrient content and quality, then put together a program that will meet their goals for feeding livestock,” he said. “The amount of land each farmer puts toward the crops each year as well as growing conditions will change their inventories and nutritional content, so we have to monitor and adjust diets on a regular basis.”
Silage is the term for when corn stalks or other cereal grasses are chopped, then compacted and stored in airtight conditions to be used as feed for cattle. In South Dakota, several crops like oats, rye, and alfalfa made into silage, but this time of year farmers are focused on corn silage.
“For corn, we are harvesting while the stalks are green and the kernels are not yet mature to capitalize on the digestibility and nutrient value of the stalks and leaves,” he said. “Moisture and the sugars in the plant will help the chopped plants ferment so they are preserved and can be stored to feed all year.”
There are several steps that are critical for creating good quality silage. It must be harvested at the right moisture level, then chopped into even lengths. Most farmers today store silage in bunker silos on the ground with cement walls. As each load comes from the field, it is packed down and leveled to push out as much of the oxygen as possible. When the bunker silo is full, it is covered with a tarp to keep air out. Most farmers also add silage inoculant product which encourages the growth of the bacteria that ferment and preserve the crop.
“Farmers have to be flexible and ready to react when it is time to harvest, then manage the silage pile when it is packed and fed,” he said. “If it is managed carefully, the silage will be a fresh and high quality feed source.”
Properly stored silage can be used for up to two years, said Tom, but most farmers plan their inventory to last just over a year to allow time for the next year’s harvest.
Curious about how silage process works? Check out a video here