The old adage, “You are what you eat” has never been more relevant than when talking about dairy cattle. In fact, few would disagree quality silage is the most important feed source for dairy cattle.

Hay and Forage Specialist / New Holland

In order to keep your highly prized herds happy, you need to feed them the highest-quality silage with exact nutritional profiles.

Over the years, haymakers and dairymen alike have worked to increase their yields and identify plant genetics and traits to increase silage quality. But there is one more factor to consider when planning your haymaking: your harvest practices.

Undoubtedly, every producer wants to create a harvest system that minimizes the weather risk for lower field losses, maintains feed quality by rapidly reducing crop moisture in the field, conserves all possible leaves and green color, reduces the man-hours required to handle the crop and includes machines that are cost-effective, reliable, durable and safe.

We could easily fill the pages of this publication with discussion about how best to tackle the challenges that come with a desire to create high-quality silage and the various strategies to achieve that goal.


However, if the growing market for larger and more powerful self-propelled forage harvesters gives us any indication, many producers are looking to improve their harvests with cutting-edge equipment and technology that allows them to harvest higher-quality feed quicker, easier and more efficiently than ever before.

In fact, over the last four years, sales of new forage harvesters at or above 800 horsepower have grown steadily, and now these high-capacity, high-powered machines make up half of all new chopper sales in North America.

But before we look forward to the emerging trends in the self-propelled forage harvesting industry, it may be helpful to take a step backward and remember the long history of innovation behind these feed-making machines – because for centuries harvesting machinery consisted of only scythes and pitchforks.

It would be hard for a farmer in the 18th or 19th century to imagine the manufacturing power behind today’s choppers or to imagine it is possible to produce feed that has scarcely been touched by human hands.

Harvest mechanization began with cutter bar mowers, then the harpoon-type fork for unloading hay in the barn came in the 1860s. These introductions were followed by the hay loader in the 1870s and the side-delivery rake in 1893. The world’s first self-propelled forage harvester was introduced in 1961.

This first machine was designed with a one-row corn header, but it dramatically improved in-field performance and efficiency.

So much so that now, over half a century later, some of the world’s leading equipment manufacturers offer self-propelled forage harvesters that deliver engine outputs approaching 1,000 horsepower that power multi-row, high-performing headers and can steer using GPS auto guidance from satellites orbiting the planet.

But these high-tech machines do more than chop silage; they help create the quality feed dairy cows need to fuel quality milk production.

And since feed quality is more important than ever, finding reliable harvesting machines that cut well in all conditions is a key motivator for producers. For that reason, there are a couple of factors to keep in mind if silage quality is a priority.

First, you should consider the width of the crop channel components. The wider the channel is, the thinner and better-controlled the crop mat will be as it travels through the components of the machine. Well-controlled crop in the channel will enhance your feed quality and consistency, making it easier for your herd to digest.

The second feature you should consider when shopping for a high-capacity forage harvester is the crop processor. Look for a crop processor that has achieved consistently high crop-processing scores from feed testing labs.

These machines will pay for themselves many times over, as there is no substitute for properly chopped and processed silage in a ration. In-cab roll gap adjustment features are certainly nice to have as well – once you work with that option, you won’t want to go back.

As far as crop processor type is concerned, there are several options available on the market today, and some manufacturers even offer multiple options within their own lines.

Heavy-duty conventional processors intended to process corn silage typically cut with short to medium lengths of cut in the half- to three-quarter-inch range. They feature conventional hard-chromed rolls, sawtooth grooves. This is a typical option you can expect from your preferred manufacturer.

Processors intended for shredding corn silage are built somewhat differently. For example, the processor may have a series of spiral grooves cut in addition to the standard teeth. As the name implies, this processor is intended to shred the crop by breaking the corn stover lengthwise into pieces as well as pulverizing the kernels, making a shredded version of corn silage.

And, finally, you should consider the human interfaces as you research high-capacity choppers. As an operator, you need to be as comfortable as possible because of the long days (and nights) that can happen during harvest. Features like ergonomic control placement may seem like a small factor, but it can make a big difference after you’ve been operating before sunrise and after sunset.

You’ll also want to make sure the cab has plenty of glass so you can keep a clear view of the header, the spout and the forage box. Driver aids can also help keep you more consistent and productive, even after a long day in the seat.

These optional features can help even less-experienced operators work like a seasoned veteran. You can look for onboard systems such as row guidance, GPS steering and even spout guidance in some cases. Each of these technology-based features is designed to take a lot of the work out of driving, boost output and minimize losses.

Perhaps the most important recommendation is to take a step back and look at the big picture before you start shopping. At the end of the day, what do you need your forage harvester to do?

Making quality silage to feed the herd all year is something you only get a chance to do once a year, so you need to put the best-quality silage in the bag or bunk you can, and you need a reliable, efficient machine to make that job easier.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Josh Harkenrider is a forage harvester specialist with New Holland North America.