What do you hear about forage quality, availability and cost this fall?
The situation is variable. In our area, it’s been drier than normal, but many farmers have received timely rains. Still, dairy producers are generally facing less-than-desired quality for corn silage and hay silage.
What are some tips to help producers and nutritionists deal with this year’s forage challenges?
The key is to know the quality of the forages they are dealing with, so that means testing is essential. You need to know what is delivered to the farm and what’s going into the diet. We focus on:
- NDF levels
- Fiber digestibility
- Starch levels
- Starch digestibility
If you are faced with limited quantities, but have good quality forage, target it toward the cows that will respond best to the higher quality feed. That means delivering these higher quality forages to your higher-producing, early lactation cows.
In addition, when evaluating which alternative feeds will fit most economically into a ration, we recommend using a program such as SESAME from Ohio State University that will provide you with a reasonably accurate estimate of the value of the feed based on its nutrient composition.
This approach is used widely when formulating diets. But I think the two most important points when feeding with high corn grain prices are:
- Use alternative feeds with sufficient rumen fermentable carbohydrates such as soyhulls, beet pulp, wheat midds, etc. Avoid feeds such as whole cottonseed that have not worked well in studies designed to replace corn meal with byproduct feeds.
- Take advantage of regional "good deals" in alternative feeds. For example, in northern New York, due to the proximity to Quebec and Ontario as well as the Saint Lawrence Seaway, we can often get great deals on byproducts such as DDGS, corn gluten feed and citrus pulp.
When we formulate diets at the Miner Institute, it all begins with knowing the fermentability (digestibility) of the forage base. We use a lot of BMR corn silage for this reason. Then we complement the forage carbohydrates with corn meal and various economically priced alternative feeds. We also tend to formulate on the higher side for total ration sugars (about 6% of dry matter or so), since it seems to help with microbial protein production and milk yield. We formulate our diets with CPM-Dairy or the Cornell Net Carbohydrate Protein System (CNCPS) because this program allows us to balance fermentable carbohydrates and do a better job of incorporating alternative feeds into the ration.
Also, as grain becomes more costly, the focus on harvesting high-quality forage intensifies. With greater amounts of digestible NDF from forage, there are less needed fermentable carbohydrates from concentrates.
How can producers avoid sacrificing milk production?
Never sacrifice milk production, and our data show that you shouldn’t have to.
We’ve done work here at the Miner Institute where we’ve been able to reduce the amount of forage in the diet to as low as 40% to 45% dry matter by replacing corn silage or hay silage with byproducts. Cows didn’t lose anything in terms of fat-corrected milk production, or efficiency of milk production, even at this relatively low level of dietary forage.
The key is the ensure sufficient length of forage (physically effective fiber) in that 40% to 45% or consider adding small amounts of a “high chew” forage such as straw.
In addition, research1 at the University of Nebraska shows that feeding cows according to production levels can make a big difference when faced with limited amounts of high-quality forages. The trial examined the milk production response to highly digestible and low digestible forages. The highly digestible forage was 10 percentage points higher than the low digestible forage. Milk production ranged from a modest 50 pounds of milk per day to 120 pounds of milk per day.
All cows responded to the higher digestible forage with an overall increase of 2 to 3 pounds more milk per day. However, the cows that responded the most were those milking 75 pounds per day and greater. They responded with an increase of 8 pounds per day increase due to the improved forage digestibility.
The moral of the story is that if you have a limited amount of high quality forages, inventory it and only feed it to the groups of cows that will respond the best. Don’t squander it by feeding to your whole herd. This dilutes the response, as well as your profitability.
1Ivan et al. Comparison of a corn silage hybrid with cell-wall content and digestibility with a hybrid of lower cell-wall content on performance of Holstein cows. J Dairy Sci. 2005 88:244-254.