At the time of ration formulation, the dry matter level of the corn silage in the diet was 37 percent. Two months later, the dry matter level of that same corn silage had fallen to 27 percent. Meanwhile, the cows still received about 68 pounds of corn silage as-fed, but instead of getting 2 pounds of crude protein from that silage, they were now getting about 1.46 pounds — a loss of about 0.5 pound or 6 percent of their daily needs.

Dry-matter losses like this scenario happen regularly on dairy operations. But when you’re pinching pennies, you can’t afford to let dry matter and other forage-quality parameters slide. Forages represent a prime opportunity — a silver lining, if you will — during these rough times.

Go for quality

A lot of producers go for yield at harvest because they want to get the most tons of forage per acre, says Gabriella Varga, dairy nutrition professor at Penn State University. However, getting the most tons of forage dry matter per acre will not necessarily yield the most tons of digestible dry matter.

Sure, you need enough inventory for your cows, but forage quality is important, too, especially when you’re squeezing more out of each dollar spent on feed. 

“This is the time that you really need to pay attention to forage dry matter,” Varga says.

Forages account for 50 percent to 60 percent of total ration dry matter, so you can bet that even a subtle change in quality parameters like dry matter makes a big difference in the overall quality of the ration.

Take, for example, the corn silage dry matter example mentioned earlier. The same type of scenario can happen to protein levels when alfalfa silage dry matter declines (Please see the example at left.)

“If you do not adjust for dry matter in the ration and changes occur, you can actually shortchange cows on protein or fiber, which could limit not only production, but perhaps components as well,” Varga says. You also could be overfeeding certain nutrients, which can hinder performance and lead to excess nutrients in the environment.

Maximize quality

There is value in maximizing other forage-quality parameters, too.

A number of studies show that neutral detergent fiber (NDF) quality influences feed intake and milk production, says Larry Chase, professor of dairy nutrition at Cornell University.

For example, a Cornell study published a couple years ago shows that cows fed early-cut orchardgrass high in NDF digestibility had higher dry matter intake and milk production than cows fed late-cut orchardgrass with low digestibility.

In general, research shows each 1 percent increase in forage fiber digestibility equates to a 0.5-pound increase in dry matter intake and another 0.5-pound increase in daily milk yield, Varga says.

A 1-percent increase in digestibility also can reduce grain intake by 1 to 1.25 pounds per cow per day and yield 200 to 250 pounds more milk over the course of a lactation, she adds.

Count on quality

Each dollar spent on feed counts in today’s economic climate.

For example, if you have to replace the dietary protein lost because of a dry matter change in corn silage or alfalfa silage, it can start to add up fast.

With soybean meal, for example, it could add 10 cents or more per cow per day to your feed bill. That is $10 per 100 cows per day.

The opportunity to save some of the dollars spent on other protein sources could lie in the forages grown and fed on your farm. Look for ways to maximize forage quality at harvest, during storage and at feedout.