Making the Most of Your Forage in a Harsh Growing Season

Drought conditions have made their mark on US forage production, shifting the distribution of forage towards greater production of corn and sorghum silage as harsh drought conditions in 2012 led to a decrease in the production of alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures, according to the USDA Crop Production 2012 Summary Report.  

In light of the overall forage shortage in much of the country, farmers need to be shrewd and economical about rationing their forage inventories. Nutritionist Steve Massie of Progressive Dairymansuggests three basic strategies to prolong your forage supply while ensuring your cows receive adequate fiber: “harvest it, buy it, or stretch it.”
If you harvest non-traditional forages to add to your supply, there are generally two ways to use them. If they are of good quality, you can add them in as feed; otherwise, they can replace traditional bedding, mainly straw, so that the bedding can be used as feed (Massie notes that he has fed up to six pounds of straw in lactation diets without hurting peak milk). Get creative about what you can harvest! There are a number of small-grain crops you can harvest in early spring to supplement your forage inventory (triticale, rye, oats, barley wheat, spelt).
If you decide to purchase forage to add to your inventory, unfortunately, a national shortage of forage means that prices won’t be cheap. The key is to buy the best-quality product for the price, keeping in mind that hay should be purchased on high RFQ (Relative Feed Quality). To stretch your forage supply, opt for a high-NDF grass or mixed hay with a friendlier price tag than alfalfa.
One more option available to you is to stretch what you have by replacing more of your forage with byproducts. The trick is to balance high-NDF feeds that contribute to the rumen fiber mat (such as whole fuzzy cottonseed, citrus pulp, almond hulls, beet hulls, cottonseed hulls, and cottonseed burrs)  with high-NDF feeds that do not contribute to the rumen mat but DO replace more fermentable carbohydrates in the diet. Balancing low-forage diets requires a relatively sophisticated ration balancing program as great care must be taken to avoid jeopardizing your herd’s health and butterfat content.
In harsh growing conditions for traditional forage, the good news is that by harvesting additional forages, purchasing supplemental forage, or by judiciously stretching what you already have, you do have options to get more mileage out of your forage supply!

“Lowest hay stock level since 1957,” Progressive Forage Grower. Vol. 14, No. 2 (February 1, 2013): Insert.
Steve Massie, “Options for handling forage shortages,” Progressive Dairyman. Vol. 27, No. 3 (February 11, 2013): 53-55.
USDA Crop Production 2012 Summary,” United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. January 2013.

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