Emergency forage decisions to be made

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Recent weeks have included evaluation and discussion over winter-killed alfalfa fields. Many fields have already been plowed or interseeded for this year's immediate forage needs, but there may be more decisions to be made after first crop hay harvest. Here are some additional options for your consideration.

1. Re-evaluate alfalfa strands

Does the stand warrant leaving the rest of the season or does it need to be replaced? Work with crop consultants to evaluate the potential in each field. Remember, in a three cut system, first cutting will typically be about 40% of the annual yield. Does your first cutting at that rate look adequate? If not, consider alternative forages.

2. Evaluate forage inventory

Current forage inventory along with anticipated summer and fall yields are important in determining the feeding and cropping options. Work with your nutritionist to determine the following:

  • How many days alfalfa inventory are remaining?
  • How many days of corn silage inventory are remaining?
  • Estimate potential forage yields this growing season based on stand assessment and acres available.

3. Evaluate feeding options

Here are some feeding options to consider if forage inventories are anticipated to be short.

  • Purchase forage. Carefully look at budgets that will probably be affected by higher forage costs. Milk prices look decent for the season, but it is the income over feed cost that counts.
  • Increase corn silage. If adequate corn silage inventory is available, the best option is likely to increase corn silage feeding. Cows can remain healthy and perform well on very high corn silage diets.
  • Have your nutritionist consider rations using forage extending by-product feeds. Watch costs carefully. Options include:
    • Cottonseed
    • Corn gluten feed
    • Wheat midds
    • Soybean hulls
    • Brewers grains
    • Distillers grains
    • Beet pulp
    • Sweet corn silage

4. Evaluate animal options

Consider reducing your animal inventory. These decisions should be made with input from your management team because reducing animal numbers may compromise future profitability. Take into account milk futures prices and feed futures prices.

  • Evaluate cow inventory. Are you overcrowded or are there unprofitable cows that should be culled? Evaluate the decision to cull productive cows carefully. Usually a productive cow in every stall is better than leaving a stall empty, even if it means purchasing high priced feed.
  • Evaluate heifer inventory. Are all heifers needed as replacements? Consider having some or all heifers custom raised. An extreme option would be to cull all replacements and purchase springing heifers as needed. Do not make this drastic decision without consulting with your veterinarian and considering genetic and biosecurity risks.

5. Evaluate cropping options

Do not compromise your long term cropping or feeding strategy. The first goal should be to set up for a normal cropping strategy in 2014 while trying to meet this year's feed needs. Use available acres to plan for adequate forage inventory. It is easier to purchase grains than forages.

  • Assess available acres to meet feed needs.
  • Plan for adequate corn silage. Corn silage provides the greatest dry matter and nutrient yields per acre.
  • Plant corn on alfalfa acres that are not salvageable – making use of nitrogen left behind by alfalfa.
  • If you need immediate feed, harvest alfalfa early and follow with corn or soybeans. Remember the possible reduced yield of other crops.
  • Evaluate options on stands with partial winter injury. Consider interseeding a fast growing grass to increase yield. This should increase yields for second and subsequent crops. One option is:
    • Five to 10 pounds per acre of Italian or an annual ryegrass depending on how much winter injury has occurred.
  • If the goal is to salvage the field beyond 2013, consider perennial ryegrass, bromegrass, or orchardgrass.
  • Plant new alfalfa on other acres. Replace acres that you cannot salvage plus any stands that are marginal and you are just keeping for feed this year. Check to make sure that last year's herbicides don't leave a residue problem and pH and soil nutrients are reasonably suited for alfalfa. Spring seeded alfalfa should provide new alfalfa feed about July 1.
  • Seed small grains for forage harvest at the end of June, then seed to brown midrib sorghum sudan grass for 1 or 2 cuttings.

Summary

Careful planning will help reduce the economic impact of significant alfalfa winter injury. Work with your management team to assess the damage and develop a plan to meet this year's feed needs. Develop the goal of returning to a normal cropping strategy for 2014 and do not compromise long term farm profitability.

For further details and updates, check the University of Minnesota Crop News updates at http://www1.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/crops/spring-issues/#forages and the University of Minnesota Dairy Extension webpage at www.extension.umn.edu/dairy. Both sites will continue to add updates to their forage and feeding sections. Another excellent source is the University of Wisconsin Extension at http://www.uwex.edu/ces/forage/articles.htm#other.


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