Nutrition: The 2014 Forage Cliff

02:38AM May 05, 2014
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( Jim Dickrell )
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In 2013, dairy farmers across the nation faced an unusual number of forage challenges: 

  • Severe winter kill of alfalfa fields in the Midwest;
  • Dry to drought conditions in the Southwest area;
  • Excessive moisture in May and June in the Midwest and Northeast, leading to late cutting of legume-grass forages; and
  • Late-planted corn with some acres not planted.

What will the forage challenges be in your area this year? Several options are listed below with possible strategies to weather the situation.

Question: What if my legume stand is marginal?

Answer: Once your fields have greened up, count the number of crowns (ideally, three to four per square foot) and stems (30 to 40 per square foot). If the stand of legume is marginal, you have several possible choices on how to proceed:

If the stand has been established for more than three or four years, you may decide to harvest the first cutting and/or replace it with corn silage. That assumes, of course, weather and growing-degree days favor corn silage.

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After harvesting first-crop alfalfa and soil temperatures are more than 60°F, planting a sorghum-sudan hybrid can offer several cuttings of quality forage after 45 days and every month after if moisture is available. This crop also allows for an area to spread manure in the summer. Brown mid-rib hybrids (BMR) are available to improve forage and fiber quality.

The legume stand could be inter-seeded with a grass or clover to thicken the stand.

You can inter-seed alfalfa into an existing alfalfa stand if the stand is less than 6 months old (new seeding last fall). In older alfalfa stands, autotoxicity prevents alfalfa seeding from developing due to compounds in the soil.

Question: If my winter small cereal grain forage survived the harsh winter, can I use it as a forage resource?

Answer: Winter small cereal grains such as triticale, rye or wheat can be excellent-quality forage if cut in the flag or boot stage for high-producing cows. Protein content more than 14%, neutral detergent fiber (NDF) less than 50%, and NDF digestibility more than 55% can be achieved. Expect 2 tons of dry matter per acre, realizing it will be difficult to dry for baled hay. If the small grain forage is chopped in the milk to dough stage, yield can double to 3 to 4 tons per acre, but quality is lower and should be fed to older heifers or dry cows.

Question: It appears soil moisture will be short. Can I consider another forage source instead of corn silage?

Answer: Corn silage on average requires 30% more water than sorghum silage. BMR forage sorghum has been reported in university studies to produce more milk due to higher NDF digestibility and lower lignin content compared to conventional forage sorghums. Dwarf BMR sorghum hybrids are also available. The crop should be harvested when seeds are soft (dough stage) to avoid hard seed passage.

Question: If my forage inventory appears short in mid-summer, what choices do I have to help stretch my forage supplies?

Answer: Planting a fall cereal annual such as oats, barley, wheat or triticale can be successful, depending on fall moisture conditions and growing-degree days.

In the Midwest, planting in mid- to late-August after corn silage harvest can result in 1 to 2 tons of dry matter per acre, depending on stage of maturity at harvest. Producing baled hay will be difficult with marginal dry conditions in the fall. The wet soil will more than likely favor silage production (baleage or silage).

Corn stalks can be harvested as heifer forage to allow producers to save their higher-quality forage for lactating cows. Treating stalks with 5% calcium oxide (quick lime) can increase fiber digestibility and quality. Harvesting the top portion of the corn plant, leaves and husks can improve forage quality as well. Avoid soil contamination when harvesting.

Straw can be fed to dry cows (8 lb. to 10 lb. of dry matter, which is the low-energy dry-cow ration concept), 25% of older heifer ration, or 1 lb. to 2 lb. to lactating cows if higher levels of functional fiber or NDF are needed.

Question:  Can we plant corn silage later in the year?

Answer:  Based on University of Wisconsin guidelines, planting corn in the Midwest in June to early July can lead to 3 to 4 tons of dry matter per acre, depending on moisture and growing-degree days. The forage may not have ears and perform similar to a grass-type forage containing higher levels of sugar but low levels of starch.