Nutrition: How Much Can You Pay?

September 7, 2011 09:19 PM

Hutjens blue**Extended comments are highlighted in blue.

As the harvest season ends, dairy managers will be challenged with higher forage prices in 2012. Even with strong milk prices, questions remain.

Question: High-quality hay is expensive. How much can I pay?

Be sure the quality is high based on test results. If crude protein is more than 20%, relative forage quality (RFQ) is more than 170 and neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFD) at 30 hours is more than 50%, the hay is worth $285 a ton at current feed prices, according to the Sesame feed pricing software from The Ohio State University. This estimate is based on $7.42 per bushel corn, $376 per ton 48% soybean meal and other competitively priced feeds. Another approach is to pay $1.38 per point of RFQ ($250 a ton for alfalfa hay divided by 180 RFQ points).

Question: If the RFQ of my first-cut alfalfa hay or haylage is below 130, what are my alternatives?

This is low-quality forage that will limit feed intake and forage digestibility and will negatively impact milk production. Consider the following strategies:

  • Limit the amount to less than 5 lb. of dry matter to high-producing cows (similar to feeding straw due to its high fill factor).
  • Shift this lower-quality forage to lower-producing groups of milk cows and heifers, if possible.
  • Dilute this forage with corn silage (if available), corn gluten feed, soy hulls, citrus pulp or other economical byproduct feeds.

Bonus Content

Download the Sesame application

Question: How much is my corn silage worth?

Method 1: For 35% dry matter corn silage containing 30% starch and NDFD of more than 55%, multiply the bushel price of corn grain by 10. Using $7 per bushel corn, corn silage is $70 a ton. If your corn silage is better or poorer in quality, or wetter or drier, price adjustments should be made. With current feed prices, Sesame software indicates corn silage is worth $93 a ton.

Method 2: Multiply the bushel price of corn grain by 8, 7, or 6 (depending on corn grain content relative to corn silage yield) plus the harvest cost plus inoculant cost plus shrink loss. Using $7 per bushel corn, multiplying by 7 (140 bu. corn yielding 20 tons of wet corn silage) equals $49 a ton, plus $5 to harvest and store, plus $2 to inoculate, equals $56 a ton (ensiled), times 10% shrink, or $5.60 added to the ensiled corn silage, or $61.60 a ton at feeding time.

Question: Can I afford these higher forage prices?

With current milk prices and high corn prices (which "pull" other feed prices up), continue to feed the best forages you can find to your best cows. High-producing cows will convert 1 lb. of dry matter (which may cost 13¢ to 15¢ per pound with higher feed prices) to 2 lb. of milk worth 40¢ to 50¢. Holstein cows consume 25 lb. to 30 lb. of dry matter. If alfalfa hay is $110 per ton or 5¢ per pound of dry matter, forage costs have increased $1.25 to $1.50 per cow per day, or 3¢ per pound of dry matter ($1.50 increase in alfalfa costs divided by 50 lb. of dry matter consumed).

Question: How low can I go with expensive forages?

The general recommendation is 2% of body weight fed as forage dry matter (20 lb. for a 1,000-lb. Jersey cow or 28 lb. for a 1,400-lb. Holstein cow). You may be able to drop to 1% of body weight or cut the amount of forage in half if you meet the following guidelines:

  • 5 lb. of forage particles more than 1" in length or 8% to 10% on the top box of the Penn State separator box and more than 40% in the second box.
  • NDF more than 28% and acid detergent fiber more than 18%.
  • Starch level of 22% to 26%, sugar 4% to 6% and soluble fiber 10% to 12%.
  • More than 60% of cows are cud chewing at rest, manure score of 3 (on a 1-to-5 scale) and optimal dry matter intake (feed efficiency of 1.5 lb. of 3.5% milk per pound of dry matter consumed).

With favorable milk prices, be careful when making these changes.

Finally, dairy managers may need to recognize that the era of $120 per ton hay and $35 per ton corn silage is over; we have higher price floor. We cannot buy gas for $2 a gallon; let’s hope we do not see $16 per cwt. milk either!

MIKE HUTJENS is an Extension dairy specialist at the University of Illinois–Urbana. You can contact him at

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