I have had some questions about the possibility of nitrate toxicity in corn silage this year. The article below, written by OSU Extension crop specialists Peter Thomison and Laura Lindsey addresses this question.
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 drought conditions, this conversion process is retarded, 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. For example, the bulk of the nitrate in a drought-stricken corn plant can be found in the bottom third of the stalk. If moisture conditions improve, the conversion process accelerates and within a few days nitrate levels in the plant returns to normal.
The highest levels of nitrate accumulate when drought occurs after a period of heavy nitrate uptake by the corn plant. Heavy nitrate uptake begins at the V6 growth stage and continues through the silking stage. Therefore, a drought during or immediately after pollination is often associated with the highest accumulation of nitrates. The resumption of normal plant growth from a heavy rainfall will reduce nitrate accumulation in corn plants, and harvest should be delayed for at least 1 to 2 weeks after the rainfall. Not all drought conditions cause high nitrate levels in plant. If the soil nitrate supply is low in the dry soil surface, plant roots will not absorb nitrates. Some soil moisture is necessary for absorption and accumulation of the nitrates.
If growers want to salvage part of their drought damaged corn crop as silage, it's best to delay harvesting to maximize grain filling, if ears have formed. Even though leaves may be dying, the stalk and ear often have enough extra water for good keep. Kernels will continue to fill and the increases in dry matter will more than compensate for leaf loss unless plants are actually dying or dead. Moreover, if nitrate levels are high or questionable, they will decrease as plant gets older and nitrates are converted to proteins in the ear.