Emission of volatile organic compounds from silage: Compounds, sources, and implications

Sasha D. Hafner, Cody Howard, Richard E. Muck, Roberta B. Franco, Felipe Montes, Peter G. Green, Frank Mitloehner, Steven L. Trabue, C. Alan Rotz

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


Silage, fermented cattle feed, has recently been identified as a significant source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to the atmosphere. A small number of studies have measured VOC emission from silage, but not enough is known about the processes involved to accurately quantify emission rates and identify practices that could reduce emissions. Through a literature review, we have focused on identifying the most important compounds emitted from corn silage (the most common type of silage in the US) and the sources of these compounds by quantifying their production and emission potential in silage and describing production pathways.We reviewed measurements of VOC emission from silage and assessed the importance of individual silage VOCs through a quantitative analysis of VOC concentrations within silage. Measurements of VOC emission from silage and VOCs present within silage indicated that alcohols generally make the largest contribution to emission from corn silage, in terms of mass emitted and potential ozone formation. Ethanol is the dominant alcohol in corn silage; excluding acids, it makes up more than half of the mean mass of VOCs present. Acids, primarily acetic acid, may be important when emission is high and all VOCs are nearly depleted by emission. Aldehydes and esters, which are more volatile than acids and alcohols, are important when exposure is short, limiting emission of more abundant but less volatile compounds.Variability in silage VOC concentrations is very high; for most alcohols and acids, tolerance intervals indicate that 25% of silages have concentrations a factor of two away from median values, and possibly much further. This observation suggests that management practices can significantly influence VOC concentrations. Variability also makes prediction of emissions difficult.The most important acids, alcohols, and aldehydes present in silage are probably produced by bacteria (and, in the case of ethanol, yeasts) during fermentation and storage of silage. Aldehydes may also be produced aerobically by spoilage microorganisms through the oxidation of alcohols. Abiotic reactions may be important for production of methanol and esters. Although silage additives appear to affect VOC production in individual studies, bacterial inoculants have not shown a consistent effect on ethanol, and effects on other VOCs have not been studied. Production of acetic acid is understood, and production could be minimized, but a decrease could lead to an increase in other, more volatile and more reactive, VOCs. Chemical additives designed for controlling yeasts and undesirable bacteria show promise for reducing ethanol production in corn silage.More work is needed to understand silage VOC production and emission from silage, including: additional measurements of VOC concentrations or production in silage of all types, and an exploration of the causes of variability; accurate on-farm measurements of VOC emission, including an assessment of the importance of individual ensiling stages and practices that could reduce emission of existing VOCs; and work on understanding the sources of silage VOCs and possible approaches for reducing production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)827-839
Number of pages13
JournalAtmospheric Environment
StatePublished - Oct 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • Atmospheric Science


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