Many dairy farms are finding themselves in a tight feed situation. Last year’s growing conditions resulted in reduced inventories while high feed prices have intensified the problems.
Many are looking for ways to stretch supplies or to find ways to bridge the feed inventory gaps. The usual ration adjustments to stretch forages are often expensive.
Finding yourself a month short of new feeds is usually more than embarrassing, it can be very expensive. Buying corn silage or haylage at the end of the season can soak up several months’ worth of margins. We are already seeing unheard of prices for any kind of hay to stretch forage needs.
A continuing inventory of what’s on hand along with the usual feed analysis and figuring how to best utilize dwindling supplies is the first step. Setting up a schedule to monitor and track the silos, bunks, or mows should be routine. But when there is simply not enough to go around there are some options.
Some farms, in anticipation of tight supplies, planted some winter grains last fall. Common grains such as wheat, triticale, and rye were used.
Some cases specialized forage varieties of wheat and triticale were planted. The intent is to harvest them early in the spring for silage and then follow them with double cropped corn silage. In other cases, neighbor’s cover crops are being considered for harvest for forage purposes and the fields will then be planted to corn as they would have normally been following the cover crop.
Some farms have experience harvesting cover crops and spring forages, but for many it will be a new adventure. Timing is critical. For the most part, the harvest window is the "boot" stage of growth. This is when the grain head is just starting to emerge.
Being too early reduces yields and may cause an unproductive regrowth. Harvesting too late results in greatly reduced feed quality. The window is usually very short.
Good harvesting techniques come with experience. Often the cover crops were planted in less than good ground conditions. Cutting, merging and chopping may have challenges. Weather conditions are often too wet to get in the fields or too dry causing rapid dry down of the cut forage. Yields are often less than anticipated or hoped for. But when supplies are tight, these crops provide an opportunity to bridge the gap.
There are other possibilities for emergency forages. Oats or spring barley can also be used as a forage. Planted early and harvested in the boot stage, they can provide some early season feeds.
Another possibility is targeting some played out hay fields that were to be rotated to corn this year. You might harvest what is available as a hay crop early in the season, then kill the sod and double crop to corn silage. This may give some extra haylage, although poorer quality, but is still a forage.
There is some risk with dry weather following a growing hay crop. Reduced silage yields are common, but can be worth the risk for the extra feed.
If corn silage is the tight feed, moving up the maturity of some of the silage crop may be the answer. Plant some early maturity silage corn early, harvest as soon as it is mature enough, fermenting it in a separate location can give you a month’s worth of extra feed.
This requires some serious crop planning that needs to happen real early in the season:
• Schedule some early ground;
• Get the right seed;
• Be ready to plant as soon as conditions are right;
• Be ready to harvest as soon as it is ready;
• Have a location for the harvested feed.
The use of good inoculants can help to facilitate a faster fermentation and speed up the availably of the needed feeds.
It is important that with the use of all unusual feed supplies they are kept in separate locations where they can be properly stored, analyzed, and deliberately incorporated into the feed program. They may represent some real opportunities if you can fully take advantage of them.
We need to think in terms of longer term feed production and storage management. Some of the lucky ones this year had extra feed inventory that saved them and in some cases were able to sell to their neighbors.
It is time to rebuild the inventories. Having three to four extra months’ inventory of corn and hay silages is good risk management and goes directly to the bottom line.