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Fall is always a time for change. Nutritionally, that has many aspects and implications on our dairy farms. The changes include new forages and diets, opportunities to use different kinds of feedstuffs, and readjusting feed programs in response to changing inventories. The real challenge is that our high-performing dairy cows just do not like changes, especially in what they eat.
The first and inevitable change is to new corn silage, new haylage or both. The second change is from the old feed that is well fermented and stable to the new stuff that has either recently fermented or is in the process of fermenting. Whatever the case, it is different. Every year, I am asked how the new crop is feeding. My answer is that it is different and we will not know until we have fed enough of it for us and our cattle to adjust to the changes.
On our larger farms, with adequate bunk storage, we strive to have enough carryover silage to allow 90 days or more for new feeds to ferment, cool and stabilize before starting to transition from old to new feed. We then allow for two to three weeks of feeding time to completely change from old to new. This allows time for feed analysis and ration planning to catch up and to make other diet changes necessary in the transition.
For much of the country, this year’s growing conditions have been from challenging for many. The result is increased variation in yield and quality, leading to significant shifts in feeding values and production responses. Hopefully, the extremes in quality have been isolated in the bunks or silos so they can be managed as different feeds. If not, management strategies may need to be adopted to compensate for the variations. In some cases, reduced yields put a strain on feed and forage inventories for the coming year, requiring further adjustments.
On top of all the conditions affecting the forage crop, the changing prices of commodities encourage us to look at alternate feeds and feed sources. It becomes attractive to try to incorporate byproducts and otherwise waste feedstuffs into what have been traditional feeding programs. All of which increases the "changes" that result in challenges and opportunities not just for us, but for our cows.
Here are some fundamentals to keep in mind as you deal with changes this fall:
- Analyze, analyze, analyze. Have a good analytical basis for making feed decisions. Use multiple sampling, good chemistry and a trusted lab. Unusual feedstuffs and even common feeds grown under unusual conditions should be tested with wet chemistry procedures. Near-infrared may not pick up uncommon or extreme conditions. Test for all the parameters that your ration programs call for.
- Rely on competent advisers. The best feed consultants may or may not be the same folks who provide your feeds and supplements. Know their qualifications and experiences thoroughly. Ask tough questions and expect a thorough understating of your situation.
- Allow as much lead time as possible to make changes in the rations. Major changes in diets need to be made in multiple steps. Because of the complexity of modern dairy rations, taking small steps means multiple rations over a period of time. Knowing where you want to end up with feeds and inventories lets you lay out a series of small changes to get from where you are to where you want to be.
- Deal with large lots and consistent sources. Resist the temptation of deals by the truckload or a batch at a special price. Sometimes an unusual batch of feedstuff or byproduct can be incorporated into a diet, but it takes extra ration building skills and management attention to keep from getting into trouble. Remember, high-performing cows need equally high-quality, consistent diets to sustain them.
JIM PECK is an independent nutrition consultant based in Newark, N.Y. You can contact him at