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High On High Moisture

When the late Ladd Hitch decided in the 1960s to put in concrete silo pits to hold 1 million-plus bu. each of ground, high-moisture corn (HMC) for his feedyards, many cattle feeders didn't see the value in it that he did.

But like other innovators and shakers in the cattle business, Hitch created a win-win situation. Hitch had virtually a yearlong supply of quality corn at a price fair to the company, its feeding customers and the farmers who supplied the grain.

“We still put up high-moisture corn in all three of our yards,” says Rod Schemm, manager of Henry C. Hitch Feedyard outside Guymon, OK, headquarters of Hitch Enterprises. “We can manage it well and it still works for us.”

There's less HMC used by commercial feedyards than a few years ago, especially in the southern High Plains. The availability of Midwest corn via unit trains helped ease tight corn supplies in an area that's always been a feed-grain deficit region.

Plus, more feedyards have sufficient steam-flaking mills capable of handling all the 15% moisture corn needed. Hitch feedyards, which have a 160,000-head capacity in Guymon and Hooker, OK, and near Garden City, KS, also have sufficient feedmill capacity. So why continue with HMC?

“We can acquire corn early, monitor harvesting and then bring in 70-80% of our total year's grain usage in 1-1½ months,” says Schemm, who has managed HMC more than 25 years. “We don't have to worry about fluctuating prices throughout the year. By buying corn when prices are seasonably low, we can hold our costs of gain down.”

The system also avoids the transport problems that can affect winter feed shipments. “We have sufficient corn to matter what type of weather or conditions we face,” Schemm says.

Some HMC pointers

Terry Mader, University of Nebraska Extension beef cattle specialist, says HMC can be processed and stored as whole shelled corn, ground shelled corn or ground ear corn. HMC stored in bunker silos should be harvested at moistures above 22%. “The preferred harvesting moisture is 24-26%,” Mader says.

“Corn stored by this method should be ground or rolled, and well packed into the silo. Since proper packing depends on the moisture and particle size, corn stored in a bunker silo can be coarsely ground, with as much as 40-50% whole corn passing through,” Mader adds.

Ground or coarse corn can also be stored in upright silos. The large bagging systems that have been primarily used for storing silage can also be used for HMC storage, he adds.

Hitch feedyards pack 1 million-plus bu. into concrete bunker pits every fall. They start receiving HMC about the first week of September, when moisture content is 24-32%. All the corn is ground on arrival.

“The HMC harvest period is intense because of the constant flow of corn into the feedyards,” Schemm says. “We use 4WD tractors to pack it, and it's packed about 20-ft. high. The corn ferments well and makes for a very good ration throughout the year.”

You can count AzTx Cattle, a 90,000-head yard in Garden City, as another HMC fan. Manager Larry Bilberry says AzTx depends more on steam-flaked corn than high moisture, but still feeds a ration of 15-20% HMC.

“With the evolution of steam flaking, we don't put up as much HMC,” he says. “But we still like the blend of HMC with flaked corn or milo. It's an excellent product fed in combination with flaked grain.”

Bilberry says Hitch contracts with about 30 area farmers to deliver HMC.

“It's an advantage for them, because they can harvest sooner and have better opportunities to market their corn,” he adds. “We offer four or five different ways for farmers to market their corn with us.”

The “10-10” program

One popular marketing method is a “10-10” program, in which growers sell corn over a 10-month period, with prices based on the average cash price of four regional grain elevators. There are also basis contracts in which growers can set their corn basis early, based on either December or March corn futures prices.

“Growers who marketed their corn early hit a home run this year,” Bilberry says, “because corn prices were in the $3.50 range in March [compared to below $2.50 in late summer].”

Schemm says Hitch experiences excellent cattle performance with the HMC ration. “We see very competitive gains and conversion rates,” he says. “The ration of HMC and steam-flaked corn works well.”

Mader notes that, in some cases, the feeding value of ground HMC tends to vary with the roughage level and storage method, when compared to dry corn.

“In a high-concentrate ration with 5-10% roughage, utilized as the sole source of grain, will on average produce daily gains 5% lower than dry rolled corn,” he says. “Feed efficiencies are similar for both corn types, however.”

Nebraska beef specialists say any lower gains experienced with HMC may be due to a more rapid ruminal digestion of the corn starch.

“This can cause more digestive disturbances, such as acute or subclinical acidosis,” Mader says. He adds that recent research from Nebraska's Haskell Lab shows the decreased performance observed with ground HMC occurred primarily during the step-up or adjustment period. That's the period in which cattle normally have the greatest chance of acidotic problems.

Adding dry corn to the ground HMC ration lowers acidosis incidence and improves steer gains and feed efficiencies, Mader says. When compared to steers fed only ground HMC or dry corn, Oklahoma and Nebraska studies show that mixtures of these corn types improve steer weight gains and feed efficiencies by 5-10%.

“Once cattle were on the high-concentrate ration (10% roughage or less), performance was similar regardless of corn type fed,” he says.

Managing HMC

Since the corn is fermented, packing ground corn and subsequent bunk management are critical, Schemm says. “Make sure bunks are read several times a day to prevent a buildup of stale ration that can hamper cattle gains,” he advises.

Bilberry agrees.“We read bunks two or three times a day,” he says. “But, if you get your corn put up tightly in a pit, HMC isn't any harder to manage than flaked corn. And, you also have a good supply of corn on hand, which is money in the bank.”

Mader says postponing harvest to decrease corn moisture doesn't increase yield or energy per acre, and often increases field losses.

Corn kernels starting to dent have about 50% moisture and are in a medium-soft stage, but are not mature. He says 12-16 days are usually needed to reduce kernel moisture from 50% to 40%. During this time, yield can increase ½-¾ bu./acre/day.

He says field losses at harvest can be significantly affected by corn moisture content. For instance, harvesting and handling become easier as moisture content falls, but ear droppage and downed stalks increase due to wind, stalk rot and insect damage. But, that loss can be minimized by proper machinery adjustment, initiating harvest when corn is at 32% moisture and finishing before corn falls below 25% moisture, he adds.

Larry Stalcup is a freelance writer based in Amarillo, TX.