Reprinted by permission, Ag Alert, California Farm Bureau Federation
With limited water supplies this year and fewer acres of certain field crops being grown, California dairy farmers who depend on forage such as corn silage are paying a higher price and going longer distances to find the feed.
Corn silage is already a major part of a dairy's ration, but this year, dairy farmers are feeding more of it because another fiber source, alfalfa hay, is in even shorter supply, with prices reaching historic highs, said Tyler Colburn, a dairy nutritionist with Alpha Dairy Consulting in Visalia.
"I think that's why you have a lot of people making an extra effort to travel to get extra silage, to reduce their dependence on the hay that they would need to purchase," he said.
Bob Headrick, a silage contractor who runs a custom harvesting operation in Kings County, said his hauls are typically no more than 10 miles from the field to the dairy, but this year he's going twice the distance to move the feed.
Higher demand and reduced plantings in the state have also pushed local corn silage prices up from about $35 per ton to $65 per ton or higher, Headrick said. With these soaring prices, many farmers have decided to harvest their corn for silage rather than grain this year, he added.
The state's total corn acreage was estimated at 520,000 this year, with 110,000 acres expected to be harvested for grain—down 39 percent from 2013—according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Total corn acreage in 2013 was 600,000 and 610,000 in 2012. California corn silage acreage in 2013 was 415,000, compared to 425,000 in 2012, USDA reported.
Because of water shortages, Colburn said dairy farmers who grow all or some of their own feed have had to be more strategic about what they plant on their own ground. He said many of his clients along the Highway 43 stretch between Selma and Bakersfield—a region with tougher soils and hit hard by water restrictions—planted less corn with what water they have or grew more acres of a different feed crop.
He noted that one dairy he works with has cut its corn silage acreage to less than 50 percent and instead grew sorghum, which uses 30 percent less water than corn silage. Sorghum is not an equivalent substitute for corn silage, he said, but with U.S. grain prices falling, dairy farmers have been able to import more corn from the Midwest to make up the nutrient differences.
Headrick said while corn silage yields appear to be very good from what he's seen so far, he noted that harvest season has just begun and will run through October, and it remains unclear how some of the later corn will fare if water runs out early on those fields.