The Science Behind Silage Corn Digestibility

The Science Behind Silage Corn Digestibility

Silage corn, primarily grown for livestock feed, has evolved over the years to offer better nutritional value. The quality of this feed is often measured by its digestibility – how efficiently livestock can extract nutrients from it. But what does 'digestibility' mean on a scientific level? To understand that, we delve into concepts like starch content, NDFD, and more.

1. Digestibility: A Brief Introduction

Digestibility refers to the proportion of feed that an animal can convert into energy and nutrients. For ruminants like cattle, digestibility is pivotal because it directly influences their growth, health, and production rates. The higher the digestibility, the more nutrients they can extract from every bite.

2. Starch Content: The Energy Goldmine

  • What is it? Starch is a carbohydrate found in many plants. In silage corn, it predominantly resides in the kernels.

  • Why is it important? Starch is a primary source of energy for livestock. When ruminants digest starch, it's broken down into sugars in the rumen, which are then fermented by microbes to produce volatile fatty acids – the primary energy source for these animals.

  • Variability in Starch: Different corn hybrids can have varying starch contents. Factors like planting date, maturity at harvest, and environmental conditions can also influence the starch levels in silage.

3. NDFD (Neutral Detergent Fiber Digestibility)

  • What is NDF? Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) is a measure of the cell wall components in plants, including cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. It represents the more fibrous, less digestible part of the plant.

  • Understanding NDFD: NDFD measures the proportion of NDF that animals can digest. A higher NDFD means that a greater fraction of the fiber is digestible, making it a crucial metric for assessing forage quality.

  • Why NDFD matters: Even though NDF is less digestible than starch, it's still a significant part of an animal's diet. High NDFD ensures that livestock can derive more energy from the fibrous parts of the silage.

4. ADF (Acid Detergent Fiber)

  • What is ADF? ADF represents the plant components that are least digestible by ruminants, mainly cellulose and lignin.

  • Relevance in Silage: Lower ADF percentages are generally desirable as they indicate less of these hard-to-digest components and suggest a higher energy content in the feed.

5. Lignin: The Double-Edged Sword

Lignin provides structural rigidity to plants, making them stand upright. While it supports the plant structurally, its complex molecular structure makes it virtually indigestible by ruminants. This is why BMR (Brown Midrib) corn, which has reduced lignin content, is often lauded for its higher digestibility.

6. Protein Content

Though not a direct measure of digestibility, protein content is vital. Silage corn hybrids with a good balance of starch and protein offer a well-rounded nutritional profile, aiding in both energy provision and muscle development in livestock.


The science behind silage corn digestibility is a fascinating blend of botany and animal nutrition. By understanding these key concepts, farmers can make informed decisions, selecting corn hybrids that offer the best nutritional value, ensuring a healthy and productive livestock herd.