Handling Drought-Stressed Corn

August 21, 2003  10(22):151-153

Joe Lauer, Corn Agronomist

Overall, the 2003 corn crop has experienced good to excellent growing conditions until about two weeks ago. Yield potential is still good for early-planted corn, at this point in time, throughout much of the state. However, more and more fields are experiencing drought conditions. Stressed fields usually have lighter, sandy soils and were planted late. The general appearance of these fields include: short-statured plants, plants with leaves which are brown over halfway up the plant, often past the ear leaf, and kernels beginning to dent prematurely. Leaf death due to drought usually progresses upwards from the base of the plant.

Drought-stressed corn can be grazed or used for forage, either as green chop or silage. Because of the potential for nitrate toxicity, grazing or green chopping should be done only when emergency feed is needed. The decision to chop corn for silage should be made when:

  1. You are sure pollination and fertilization of kernels will not or did not occur and that whole-plant moisture is in the proper range for the storage structure so that fermentation can occur without seepage or spoilage losses. If there is no grain now, florets on the ear were either not pollinated or have not started to grow due to moisture stress, and the plant will continue to be barren. If the plant is dead, harvest should occur when whole plant moisture is appropriate for preservation and storage.
  2. If pollination and fertilization of kernels did occur, do not chop until you are sure that there is no further potential to increase grain dry matter and whole plant moisture is in the proper range for the storage structure. These kernels may grow some now, if the plant is not dead and in those fields receiving rain. If kernels are growing dry matter is accumulating and yield and quality of the forage is improving.

Green, barren stalks will contain 75-90% water. If weather remains hot and dry, moisture content drops, but if rain occurs before plants lose green color, plants can remain green until frost. Drought stressed corn has increased sugar content, higher crude protein, higher crude fiber and more digestible fiber than normal corn silage. Drought generally reduces yield and grain content resulting in increased fiber content, but this is often accompanied by lower lignin production that increases fiber digestibility. In seasons where the drought comes at the end of the season, sometimes the grain content is reduced but the stalks are large and well lignified, so the fiber digestibility is not increased.

A few cautions and suggestions:

  •  Be sure to test whole-plant moisture of chopped corn to assure yourself that acceptable fermentation will occur. Use a forced air dryer (i.e. Koster), oven, microwave, electronic forage tester, NIR, or the rapid "Grab-Test" method for your determination. With the "Grab-Test" method (as described by Hicks, Minnesota), a handful of finely cut plant material is squeezed as tightly as possible for 90 seconds. Release the grip and note the condition of the ball of plant material in the hand.
    • If juice runs freely or shows between the fingers, the crop contains 75 to 85% moisture.   
    • If the ball holds its shape and the hand is moist, the material contains 70 to 75% moisture.
    • If the ball expands slowly and no dampness appears on the hand, the material contains 60 to 70% moisture.
    • If the ball springs out in the opening hand, the crop contains less than 60% moisture.
  • The proper harvest moisture content depends upon the storage structure, but is the same for drought stressed and normal corn. Harvesting should be done at the moisture content that ensures good preservation and storage: 65-70% in horizontal silos (trenches and bunkers), 60-70% in bags, 60-65% in upright stave silos, and 50-60% in upright oxygen limiting silos.
  • Depending upon farm forage needs, raising the cutter-bar on the silage chopper reduces yield but increases quality. For example, raising cutting height reduced yield by 15%, but improved quality so that Milk per acre of corn silage was only reduced 3-4% (Lauer, Wisconsin). In addition the plant parts with highest nitrate concentrations remain in the field (Table 1).
Table 1. Nitrate concentration of various corn plant partsts. 
Plant part ppm NO3N
Leaves 64
Ears 17
Upper 1/3 of stalk 153
Middle 1/3 of stalk 803
Lower 1/3 of stalk 5524
Whole plant 978
derived from Hicks, Minnesota
  • If drought-stressed corn is ensiled at the proper moisture content and other steps are followed to provide good quality silage, nitrate testing should not be necessary. However, it is prudent to follow precautions regarding dangers of nitrate toxicity to livestock (especially with grazing and green-chopping) and silo-gasses to humans when dealing with drought-stressed corn. Nitrates absorbed from the soil by plant roots are normally incorporated into plant tissue as amino acids, proteins and other nitrogenous compounds. Thus, the concentration of nitrate in the plant is usually low. The primary site for converting nitrates to these products is in growing green leaves. Under unfavorable growing conditions, especially drought, this conversion process is slowed, causing nitrate to accumulate in the stalks, stems and other conductive tissue. The highest concentration of nitrates is in the lower part of the stalk or stem. If moisture conditions improve, the conversion process accelerates and within a few days nitrate levels in the plant returns to normal. Nitrate concentration usually decreases during silage fermentation by one-third to one-half, therefore sampling one or two weeks after filling will be more accurate than sampling during filling. If the plants contain nitrates, a brown cloud may develop around your silo. This cloud contains highly toxic gases and people and livestock should stay out of the area. The resulting energy value of drought-stressed corn silage is usually lower than good silage but not as low as it appears based on grain content. The only way to know the actual composition of drought-stressed corn silage is to have it tested by a good analysis lab.
Marshfield Plant and Soil Analysis Laboratory
8396 Yellowstone Dr.
Marshfield, WI 54449-8401
Phone: (715) 387-2523
A & L Great Lakes Laboratories
3505 Conestoga Drive
Fort Wayne, IN 46808
Phone: (219) 483-4759
  • Keep in mind that "normal" guidelines for determining when to harvest corn for silage will be useful for many, if not most, corn fields. These include using the kernel milkline as a guide and taking whole-plant moisture samples to actually determine harvest date, and beginning to harvest after the dent stage, when the milkline has moved towards the kernel tip.
  • Growers need to carefully monitor, inspect and dissect plants in their own fields as to plant survival potential, kernel stages, and plant moisture contents in determining when to begin silage harvest. Fields and corn hybrids within fields vary greatly in stress condition and maturity. Often questions arise as to the value of drought-stressed corn. In order to estimate pre-harvest silage yields, the National Corn Handbook publication "Utilizing Drought-Damaged Corn" describes methods based on either corn grain yields or plant height (if little or no grain yield is expected). Below is a summary of this publication.

Grain yield method for estimating silage yield: For moisture-stressed corn, about 1 ton of silage per acre can be obtained for each 5 bushels of grain per acre. For example, if you expect a grain yield of 50 bushels per acre, you will get about 10 tons/acre of 30% dry matter silage (3 tons/acre dry matter yield). For corn yielding more than 100 bushels per acre, about 1 ton of silage per acre can be expected for each 6 to 7 bushels of grain per acre. For example, corn yielding 125 bushels of grain per acre, corn silage yields will be 18 to 20 tons per acre at 30% dry matter (5 to 6 tons per acre dry matter yield). See also Table 2 in A1178 "Corn silage for the dairy ration."

For moisture-stressed corn, about 1 ton of silage per acre can be obtained for each 5 bushels of grain per acre. For example, if you expect a grain yield of 50 bushels per acre, you will get about 10 tons/acre of 30% dry matter silage (3 tons/acre dry matter yield). For corn yielding more than 100 bushels per acre, about 1 ton of silage per acre can be expected for each 6 to 7 bushels of grain per acre. For example, corn yielding 125 bushels of grain per acre, corn silage yields will be 18 to 20 tons per acre at 30% dry matter (5 to 6 tons per acre dry matter yield). See also Table 2 in A1178 "Corn silage for the dairy ration."

Plant height method for estimating silage yield: If little or no grain is expected, a rough estimate of yield can be made assuming that 1 ton of 30% dry matter silage can be obtained for each foot of plant height (excluding the tassel). For example, corn at 3 to 4 feet will produce about 3 to 4 tons per acre of silage at 30% dry matter (about 1 ton per acre of dry matter).

Other Key References

Utilizing Drought-Damaged Corn (NCH-58) www.agcom.purdue.edu/AgCom/Pubs/NCH/NCH-58.html 

Weather Stress in the Corn Crop (NCH-18) www.agcom.purdue.edu/AgCom/Pubs/NCH/NCH-18.html 

Growing Season Characteristics and Requirements in the Corn Belt (NCH-40) www.agcom.purdue.edu/AgCom/Pubs/NCH/NCH-40.html


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