Plan for winter forage needs

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One of the keys to achieving profitability on your farm is by feeding large amounts of high quality forage. The 2013 growing year throughout much of Minnesota and the Midwest was a real challenge.

With the late planting in the spring and drought as we moved through the summer, forage and feed supplies are less than we had hoped for. I suspect corn silage quality will be from poor to excellent. Now is an excellent time to evaluate your forage inventory and plan your feeding program for the upcoming year.

With feed representing about 50 percent of the total cost of dairy production, it is important to plan ahead for the amount and quality of your forage needs. Forward planning minimizes the risk of running out of forage and having to buy at inopportune time. Dairy cows also like consistent rations and adjust to ration changes better if the changes are more gradual. It creates stress for both the nutritionist and farmer if huge rapid adjustments to diets must be made.

A good way to prevent these challenges is to determine forage requirement and supplies periodically throughout the year. This allows for the anticipation of shortages and allows you to plan ahead. Options might include:

  1. Purchase hay or other forages
  2. Reduce animal numbers
  3. Re-balance diets, substituting some high fiber by-products for a portion of the forage
  4. Re-balance rations reallocating forage base availability

Testing current forage inventory and determining the amounts of different quality forages will also help inventory management. Animals like pregnant heifers can grow well on lower quality (energy and protein) forages as long as the diet is well balanced. Table 1 shows forage quality needs of different classes of animals.

There is a simple forage inventory planner and a spreadsheet that can help you manage your forage inventory. It will estimate total forage required and inventory of different storage systems. The spreadsheet is available on-line at http://www1.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/dairy/forages/; click on “Forage quality for dairy rations” and look for the link to “Forage inventory management spreadsheet”. If you have questions about the spreadsheet, please call or send me an email (Tel: 320-203-6093; email: salfe001@umn.edu).

Because density can vary as you move through your storage systems, it is important to measure inventory on a regular basis. I suggest at least quarterly.

If you are short of forage, begin looking for a supply starting now. Do not wait until you are nearly out. The high number of acres that winterkilled last year and the decrease in the number of acres likely means the supply will be tight again this year. We have two quality tested hay auctions in Minnesota – one in Sauk Centre and one in Litchfield. There is hay sold on Craigslist and also on the web site www.hayexchange.com.

Table 1. Forage quality needs of different classes of animals.

Class of livestock Relative feed value
Lactating cows >160
Dry cows1 100
Calves younger than 6 months >150
Heifers, 3-12 months 125-145
Heifers, 12-18 months 115-130
Heifers, 18-24 months 100-115
1Dry cows can be fed lower energy hay or straw to minimize transition problems.


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