Drought has taken a toll on forage and hay supplies, leaving dairy producers searching for feed. Texas AgriLife Extension Service dairy specialist Ellen Jordan says they need to begin following a systematic approach to forage management.
“After a long, hot and dry summer, Texas and the entire Southern Plains region face a forage shortage,” Jordan said. “Hay, or any other forage for that matter, is selling at a premium — if it can be located.”
Several steps are needed for this systematic approach. She suggests inventorying the current forage supply, analyzing all forages for nutritional value, and working with a nutritionist to determine how much forage will be needed for the herd, including replacements and dry cows, for the coming year.
Jordan cautioned dairy owners to expect more variability with crops grown under drought conditions. Also, depending upon the crop and growing conditions, they should check for nitrates and prussic acid.
To get a ballpark estimate of the forage dry matter needed to feed a herd, she provided the following equations: 1.5 percent of the body weight per day times the number of cows and 1.1 percent of the body weight per day times the number of heifers equals the number of pounds of dry matter per day needed for the herd.
To determine the total pounds of dry matter needed for the herd, figure the pounds of dry matter per day for cows and for heifers and then multiply that number times the number of days they will be needing feed.
For example, if the average body weight of a 100-cow herd was 1,400 pounds, the herd would need – 1,400 pounds X .015 per day X 100 cows – 2,100 pounds of forage dry matter per day just for the cows. If the herd has 90 heifers of all ages that average 700 pounds, the herd needs an additional 700 pounds X .011 per day X 90 or 693 pounds of forage dry matter per day for the heifers.
“If you estimate it will be 250 days until you’ll be able to get more forage from a winter crop, you’ll need 2,100 plus 693 times 250, or 698,250 pounds of forage dry matter,” she said.
To determine how much hay that would be on an as-fed basis, divide the pounds of forage dry matter needed by the percent dry matter in the hay, Jordan said.
“Typically rations are developed to maximize the use of high-quality forages, but this year ask your nutritionist what is the minimum amount you must have to keep the animals healthy,” she said.
And remember, Jordan said, because of the shortage of rain, some failed crops are being harvested for forage rather than their originally intended use. The fiber content may be higher, so less forage may be required to get the same fiber benefit.
The next step in the systematic approach is to locate forages and high fiber by-product feeds, she said. Again, work with the nutritionist to determine ways to stretch forages with products such as beet pulp, soy hulls, corn cobs or other fibrous products that are not typically used.
“Analyze these feeds as well so you can get the most out of them,” Jordan said. “Test, don’t guess.”
Next is the hardest part: compare how much forage is needed to what can be located and then decide if animals need to be sold or relocated to make the two figures meet, she said.
“It may be better to send heifers somewhere else to feed rather than bring more feed to them,” Jordan said. “Or you may decide to sell heifers and concentrate on the cows. But evaluate the cows in your milking herd. Now is the time to cull those cows that aren’t producing enough to cover their feed costs.”
She said producers can consider the forage shortage as an “opportunity” to cull cows with reduced fertility, poor feet and legs, or high somatic cell counts.
“If you have bulls, ask if this is the time to switch to artificial insemination instead and ship the bull,” Jordan said.
The final step of the systematic approach is to conserve the forages that are gathered, she said. Reduce shrink by storing hay in barns if possible. Locate hay stored outside in a well-drained location or on a gravel pad to reduce losses. Consider tarping the hay to further reduce rain damage.
“If you’ve been feeding free choice in bale rings, move to a total mixed ration to reduce waste,” she said.
“Mother Nature has provided yet another challenge,” Jordan said. “Make systematic decisions, rather than buying on impulse. If fall rains permit, consider planting winter forage crops such as small grains to help meet the forage needs of your herd.”
For more dairy information, visit http://texasdairymatters.org. For other drought-related resources visit the AgriLife Extension website at: http://texashelp.tamu.edu/004-natural/droughts.php.