The most fundamental beef cow feeding strategy remains the use of pasture, which is considered the lowest-cost feed resource. Therefore, many cattle operations aim to maximize pasture time annually to benefit from labor, manure management, physical activity and nutrition advantages.

However, even operations that make full use of pasture must have a supplemental feeding strategy. This is where silage comes into play. Providing silage is generally considered essential to address nutritional deficiencies caused by seasonal variations, adverse weather conditions or inadequate diets.

Still, whether composed of alfalfa, corn, grass-legume mix, sorghums or oats, the silage must be of high quality. For these higher-quality forages, often supplemental and generally smaller forage crop sizes, many cattle operations now prefer to pack it into bags. This allows cattle operations tremendous flexibility in adjusting feed rations, managing herd size fluctuation year to year and improving herd health.

“Bagging silage is an important tool for managing your forage. With cattle, you don’t want to get caught in a drought and not have a feed bank. Supplemental bagged silage can make up for shortages and give cattle what’s needed for a proper diet,” says Kevin Huffman, owner of Huffman Farms in McGregor, Texas.

Huffman Farms, established decades ago, initially focused on stocker cattle and cropping. In 1999, Huffman decided to begin offering custom harvesting services for various crops such as corn, milo, sorghum, wheat, grass and swath. Today, the operation spans roughly 530 square miles, encompassing 4,200 acres of cropland, 1,800 acres of range land and a herd of 170 beef cows.


According to Huffman, the challenge is that silage quality must be high to ensure a healthy response. While piles, pits and bunkers are often used to store forage and silage, the quality can quickly degrade when exposed to air and the environment unless it is used promptly. Some estimates suggest spoilage and loss can amount to as much as 30%.

“As you open up a pile and expose it to air, it will begin to mold and deteriorate, so the quality of feed is going to go down fast,” says Huffman. He notes that utilizing piles can still be viable for a product such as corn silage if it is used rapidly.

However, bagging silage is often preferred over piles for crops used less frequently or in smaller quantities. Bagging proves to be a more cost-effective method that offers greater nutrient yield per acre compared to any other approach for harvesting and storing feed. If feed conditions become unfavorable, such as excessive dryness, moisture, prolonged storage, maturity or exposure to rain, it poses no problem as the bag remains sealed and can withstand these adversities while maintaining favorable fermentation conditions.

“There are advantages to putting higher-quality forages in a bag. You can keep it fresher, more stable, and the quality is better,” adds Huffman. He notes that some bagging equipment is designed to last for many years and can be easy to maintain.

Bagged silage promotes better nutrition

High-quality bagged silage plays an essential role in ensuring proper nutrition for beef cattle during many important periods.

For breeding herds, the silage can help to achieve satisfactory body condition at calving, maintain milk production and calf growth, and ensure adequate nutrition to facilitate fertility. Supplementation of cows grazing pasture with high-quality silage can reduce the incidence of grass tetany, a disease of livestock caused by magnesium deficiency.

Silage can be fed to calves as young as 3 months old, but some supplementary concentrates are required. Superior silage can also be fed to weaners and feeder cattle to maintain the growth rate of young cattle to ensure they reach a satisfactory weight for age by the start of the finishing period.

For all classes of beef cattle, high-quality silage can provide a long-term forage reserve for drought, bushfires or floods to help ensure survival and production. Having the silage on hand can eliminate the high cost of purchasing feed during such emergencies. The silage also provides the option to cost-effectively finish cattle during a drought.

To further promote herd health, the silage can be mixed with proteins, minerals and other feed additives into total mixed rations (TMR) for cattle whenever desired. TMR is a proven nutritional approach that allows cattlemen to mix and match forages, commodities and feed additives according to stage of production and nutritional requirements.

High-quality silage supplementation in low-quality pasture has shown positive liveweight gain responses. The use of silage supplements can enhance individual animal production and decrease pasture intake, facilitating higher stocking rates.

Proper packing equals better nutrition

One key to producing and preserving high-quality bagged silage is superior packing.

Fortunately, as cattlemen and ranchers have used silage bagging over the years, the equipment has continued to improve.

To maximize the effectiveness of their equipment, cattlemen should prioritize packing pressure as a key factor to consider for equipment selection. With silage bagging, the oxygen is removed almost instantly, and fermentation begins promptly. The sealed bags protect silage quality and maintain favorable fermentation conditions even amid unfavorable conditions such as exposure to rain, moisture, excessive dryness or prolonged storage.

Among silage bagging equipment, packing is approached in various ways, which can affect productivity. One bagging system utilizes a cable system with a heavy net backstop. With such a system, after each bag is filled, the cables must be rewound and the backstop moved to the next location, a cumbersome process.

For greater efficiency, Versa created an innovative cable loop density system that uses a single adjustable cable inside the bag. The original equipment manufacturer (OEM) also developed a heavy-duty belt system that facilitates tighter packing of longer silage bags than the industry norm, which minimizes air pockets and spoilage while maximizing storage capacity.

Dan Byers of Ron and Dan Byers Forage LLC in Berwick, Illinois, says he appreciates that the baggers are designed to effectively pack silage and forage without a backstop and cables, which reduces setup time at each location.

Today, the process of creating bagged silage for cattle ranchers is relatively simple. Essentially, they back up a truck, dump the feed in and start bagging. Capacities generally range from 2 to 5 tons per minute for side-unloading wagons to higher-capacity truck rear-end-loading models that handle from 4 to 16 tons of bagged silage per minute.

A farmer by trade, Ryan Williams of R&M Cattle Company in Farwell, Texas, operates his own feedyard, a small dairy and custom harvests forage crops for similar nearby operations in the area.

Williams, who has bagged silage and forage since 2006, says the technique works particularly well on lower-tonnage crops like high-moisture corn, sorghum, wheat, hay, cottonseed and alfalfa, which may not be worth putting up a pile for in smaller quantities. He believes that the biggest advantage of bagging is minimizing shrinkage.

“The shrink is very low, about 1 to 2 percent, and the quality of feed is the best when bagged because it’s totally protected. There’s no mold, there’s no crust on top, none of that,” says Williams.

“You can keep the bag for quite a while until you need to use it. You can use some of it and stop. We’ve had silage [remain in bags] for three years before it was used,” adds Williams.

With silage as an essential means of feed management for cattlemen, the use of bagging is now becoming an industry best practice used in conjunction with more traditional methods. Cattlemen who take advantage of this cost-effective, superior technology will promote the health and production of their herd as well as the efficiency and profitability of their operation for many years to come.

This article was contributed by Del Williams on behalf of Versa. Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, California.