Winter beef cow diets utilizing corn stover can bridge the winter forage gap

High hay price alternatives like corn stover can save on winter beef cow diets.

Photo by Kevin Gould, MSU Extension.

Forage supplies look to be short again in many areas this season. For those needing to purchase expensive hay for beef cows, there are more affordable options. In southwest Michigan, corn husklage from seedcorn production was a key forage byproduct. Due to marketing issues, husklage is no longer available to most producers. Many will need to look to other cost effective winter feed sources. This article will discuss how corn stover can be utilized in early to mid-gestation beef cow diets.

Significant work has been done to better understand harvest, storage and feeding options for corn stover.  First, we need to understand the feed value and cost associated with stover. Target the top 2/3 of the plant for harvest. This includes the cob, husk, leaves, and upper stalk. The lower 30-50 percent of the stalk has much lower feed value and should remain in the field if possible.

Harvest methods

Grazing stover is clearly the most cost effective harvest method. However, fence, water, and location are all hurdles. Grazing may only be available for 30-60 days with proper supplementation while stored stover can be fed all winter.

Processing stover and windrowing from the combine generally works well. Remove the chaff spreader from the combine to windrow the stover. Raking may be necessary to increase yields. Try leaving the lower half of the corn stalk in the field to maximize forage quality and minimize soil erosion risk.

Baling will generate a more stable feed resource and offers the best alternative for harvest and transport to feeding areas. Large square bales transport easier but cost more to bale. Custom baling rates generally range from $10-15/bale depending on size, wrap and processing. Baling wet (30-40 percent moisture) and wrapping bales is also possible and increases the value another $10-15/ton of dry matter. Wet ensiled bales will feed better and can also be injected with nitrogen to increase protein levels.

When preparing the stover for baling, consider stalk residue, processing by the combine, windrowing to minimize ash content and moisture levels.  Bales will maintain quality up to 30 percent moisture when stored outside and fed during winter months. Any dry bales held beyond April 1 should be covered or stored inside. Avoid stacking bales inside a building when moisture is over 20 percent due to fire hazard.

Feed value 

Work in mid-Michigan has addressed stover nutrient values which should help with accurate ration balancing.  Stover generally runs 4-5 percent CP and cow requirements range from 8-10.5 percent CP, so protein supplementation will be required when feeding higher stover diets. The attached PDF was corn stover sampled in central-Michigan in 2008. Stover was baled directly from the windrow left by the combine. Ash content was about 7 percent. Raking will increase ash content by another 3-4 percent in dry conditions due to increased soil in the bales.

Cost of stover

At stover removal rates of two tons per acre, the fertilizer value of corn stover, equipment and labor costs associated with harvest together total $55-60 per ton (at 15 percent dry matter). This offers a significant savings when comparing to current market value beef quality hay $130 per/ton. Even with protein supplementation, a stover based ration can save $0.61 per head per day, or $110 per cow over a standard 180-day winter feeding period. 

Mid-gestation beef cow diets require 8-9 percent crude protein (CP). With stover at 4-5 percent CP, we need to supplement protein. Dry distiller’s grain offers the most cost effective protein source and can be fed at 2-4lb./cow/day to raise dietary protein levels. Michigan State University Extension beef educators recommends using ration balancing software to best utilize your feed resources. Contact Kevin Gould at if you need assistance with rations.


Harvesting and feeding corn stover does come with challenges. Economic benefits are clear for those willing to harvest, feed and manage this forage resource for winter beef cow rations.

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