Nutrition: Plan for a Challenging Year

September 19, 2013 01:58 PM

Forage testing and inventory control will be critical with this year’s variable forages.

Peck blue webBy Jim Peck, Dairy Today contributor

Challenges abound. With wildly variable weather patterns, this year seems to have its share. It is always too wet or too dry some place, but this year it seems to be really too wet or really too dry in most places. I am seeing some of the best and some of the worst corn; unfortunately it may be in the same field.

In many places some of the early planted is offset by some that was planted late. Delayed first cutting alfalfa has messed up the summer’s cutting schedules and in some cases will prevent an entire cutting this season. The unusual weather patterns have altered the growth characteristics and eventually the feeding values of many of our crops, especially the forages.

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Variations and unknowns will become the norm in planning and implementing feeding programs. By the time you are reading this, much of the corn silage harvest will be wrapping up or completed. You will have an idea of what your inventories are and the final crop conditions. The next step is to work with what you have into a feeding plan.

It is common for corn silage grown under stressed conditions to have increased variability in both nutrient content and feeding values. In the field, it shows up as variations in ear size and maturity from plant to plant and between areas in the field (mostly due to drainage).

In hay crops, the variation is more subtle, but it is still there. Fortunately, harvesting and storage techniques tend to average those variations out, but do not change the cumulative effect on the overall crop.

That brings me to the value of some of the tools in the nutritionist’s tool box: Feed analysis, interpretation and implementation. Over the years the feed analysis has been developed, refined and adapted to be one of the most valuable tools we have, especially in a year like this when a lot of feeds that are just outside the normal expected parameters and some may be really unusual.

The first step is to do a complete inventory of all the various groups and individual batches of feeds. Included in the inventory should be an inventory of the numbers and types of animals (cows, heifers, feeders, etc.) that will be fed. It should be a part of an ongoing rolling inventory of your feeding system.

The second step is to characterize each batch in terms of quality, storage condition, fiber characteristics using the Penn State Particle Separator on forages and its location (accessibility). Define each in terms of tons and the desired feeding periods.

The third step is to analyze the feeds. Basic nutrient content, protein fractions, fiber fractions, and digestibility are basic. Local practices of individual labs and nutritionist are important to the interpretation of your specific analytical work. The most important aspect is to use proper sampling techniques and a multiple sample protocol to establish reliable feed value data. Remember, a grab sample does not characterize a bunk of silage, nor do one or two samples establish a trend.

The forth step is to pull all of your information together and establish an ongoing feeding plan for the season. A rolling year-long feeding plan is becoming a standard for many herds. The current year’s corn silage may be fed out over a more than 12-month feeding period. The current hay crop inventory may be scheduled for the next 9 to 12 months.

A carryover inventory should be planned to allow for feeding transitions and unexpected circumstances or changes in livestock numbers. It also allows for the planned purchases of what will be needed for shortfalls and needed supplements. An empty bunk or bin leaves you in a really poor purchasing position.

Finely, implement the plan. From the daily TMR mixer sheets, to the weekly or monthly inventory checks, implementing the plan is both the job and joy of seeing a good plan work. Continued monitoring, sampling, testing, and adjusting to changing conditions are fundamental to making a good plan work.

Jim Peck is an independent nutrition consultant based in Newark, N.Y. You can contact him at

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