What do you hear about forage quality, availability and cost this fall?
Many farms are going to be short on forage inventory going into the 2012 – 2013 feeding season. We’re already seeing dairy-quality alfalfa hay $100 a ton higher than normal for this time of the year—prices for corn silage are higher, as well.
There are also going to be some issues with ration-balancing based on feed quality. Based on results we received from Dairyland Laboratories in Wisconsin of the analyses of 1,400 samples of corn silage that were taken as corn came off fields in late summer, moisture levels are high, causing some problems.
NDF values are also high. NDF levels are typically at 45%, but this year are around 54%, meaning these forages will have a higher fiber and fill factor that must be dealt with as you feed them.
The good news is that the fiber appears to be more digestible. For example, values for NDF digestibility were running at 59%. Any time you get 55% it’s considered good.
This tells me you better be testing these forages because there’s a great deal of variation depending on the moisture the crop received during the growing season, planting date, chopping time, moisture content and fermentation rate.
How can producers and nutritionists best address this scenario?
This question requires a multi-part answer.
First, never give up milk production. Second, look at economical feed alternatives, as well as management strategies like cow grouping decisions, since profitability comes from more milk income and lower production costs. Work both sides of that equation.
Next, evaluate all feed ingredient decisions using a program like SESAME from Ohio State University or FEEDVAL 2012 from the University of Wisconsin. These programs evaluate feedstuffs on the basis of all listed nutrient levels (RUP, effective fiber and/or energy, for example) based on all the feeds available in the dairy manager’s area along with their prices. Feeds that are used primarily for fiber, bypass protein or any other nutrient can be compared to determine the best buy, which feeds are overpriced and which are underpriced. If a feed ingredient price is below the breakeven price, then you should consider adding or substituting it into the current ration.
Also, consider the following benchmarks to make sure your ration is on track with financial objectives:
Should producers be concerned about nitrate and mycotoxin levels?
Nitrate levels can be quite high in some of these forages. Be sure you know whether you’re looking at results for nitrates vs. nitrate nitrogen because the acceptable levels are different for each.
Again, looking at the forage testing results from the samples we received this fall, 23% of samples from Nebraska were considered “dangerous” feed, but that level varies by state and region. But know that nitrates are there—it’s a matter of knowing to what degree they are present.
Mycotoxins, specifically aflatoxin, are the other area for concern in a year like this one. Forages than contain 20 ppb or greater of aflatoxin should not be fed to lactating dairy cows.
How do forage alternatives fit into rations this year?
There are two risks with increasing the levels of by-products in rations at the current time.
The first is financial. Many of these feeds have followed the corn and soybean markets, so as corn and soybean prices have risen, so has the cost for dried distillers grains (DDGS), corn gluten or canola meal, for example. By-product feeds are not nearly the good buy they were for the past two to three years.
Secondly, you also need to watch aflatoxin levels, especially in DDGS. If aflatoxin is present in corn, it’s increased by a factor of three for DDGS. If corn contains 10 ppb, then the resulting DDGS will contain 30 ppb. And remember that any feed that exceeds 20 ppb of aflatoxin cannot be fed to lactating dairy cows.
Straw is another forage extender, but it also is not inexpensive. Also keep in mind its low digestibility—this makes it great for dry cow diets, but not necessarily for lactating cow rations.
Corn stalks are another alternative to consider. Just be sure to be aware of dust, dirt and nitrate levels that can negatively impact animal performance.
What economic factors should be considered when implementing alternative feeding strategies?
Essentially, there are four major factors to think about before making any changes to your ration.
- Maintain milk and milk component production. Even with milk at $20 per hundredweight (cwt), you can afford to feed forages at 17-cents to 18-cents per pound of dry matter. Also keep in mind that milk protein is worth in excess of $3 per pound, so it doesn’t make financial sense to implement changes that negatively affect its production.
- Avoid long-term negative impacts. Don’t make a change to save a nickel, a dime or 50 cents today that results in cows not becoming pregnant, heifers not growing to be ready to enter the milking herd at 24 months of age or earlier or in lowering milk quality—like raising somatic cell counts because an important trace mineral was pulled.
- Know the feed you’re feeding. We need to know what the makeup is of forages that comprise the 40% to 60% of the feeding program. Look at forage testing as an investment, not a cost. It’s essential to know the level of rumen fermentable carbohydrates—the sugars, the starches and soluble fiber—because they provide the fuel for rumen bacteria. We have to know fiber levels, metabolizable proteins and so on. These are areas that scream for accurate feed information that a forage testing program provides.
- Monitor dry matter intake and feed efficiency. It’s critical to know how much cows are eating, as well as how many pounds of milk you get for each pound of dry matter consumed. Your goal should be a feed efficiency of 1.5. Lastly, monitor Income Over Feed Cost because that’s the bottom line. Milk prices for the next several months are projected to be modestly strong, so we can afford to balance and build solid feeding programs.