In Pennsylvania, it is common for corn residue left after combining grain to be utilized as ground cover throughout the winter, serving to protect the ground and helping to eliminate runoff of nutrients and soil erosion. Another common practice is baling corn stover and utilizing it as bedding for livestock during the cold months of the year. The absorbency helps to keep animals dry and warm during the harsh weather.
However, an often overlooked usage for corn residue is its feeding value – either baled or grazed. Mature, non-lactating, mid-gestation beef cattle require approximately 50% total digestible nutrients (TDN) and 7.1% crude protein (CP). In a spring-calving cow herd, cows will not be lactating and will be in mid-gestation during the winter. Corn stover has a 35-55% TDN and a 4-7% CP, and with a little supplementation, can be utilized effectively as a forage.
When the diet of a ruminant animal drops below 7% CP, rumen function begins to decline, causing a decrease in utilization of consumed forages. Therefore, when feeding corn stover as a forage, it is important to supplement a nutritional protein source so ruminal motility remains optimal and animal production does not decline. This is especially important during the winter when nutrient requirements increase slightly.
Supplementing with a high-quality dry hay with optimum TDN and CP will help fill the void in nutrients left by the corn stover, while the corn residue will provide essential fill and fiber for optimal ruminal fermentation.
Studies have shown that grazing crop residue has no negative impact on subsequent crop yields and can improve soil health through the reapplication of nutrients removed and hoof impact. If corn stover is baled and removed, it is recommended that a winter annual be planted to minimize the risk of soil erosion, nutrient runoff, and to provide ground cover for the winter season, especially if manure will be applied to that field.
Additionally, farmers with a grain operation and no grazing livestock could lease their fields with corn residue to neighboring livestock operations for fall grazing and obtain an additional income source.