Adjust dairy cattle diets for low-quality forages

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A late spring and continued wet weather patterns are presenting many challenges for livestock producers, as well as farmers who raise forages for sale.

"High-quality forage is important to dairy producers, especially given the many high costs they face, including feed and fuel," says J.W. Schroeder, North Dakota State University Extension Service dairy specialist. "But this year, despite diligent planning and long hours of work, the hay field may not yield the quality of hay to which you are accustomed."

Here are some ways he suggests dairy producers can deal with less-than-ideal forage:

* Feed lower amounts of later-maturity forage and increase the amount of corn silage fed when possible. You still have time to divert acreage toward corn silage to increase the tonnage to place in storage. Although not incorporated into ration-balancing programs, research and dairy farmers' experience show that cows, especially early lactation cows (the money makers), will milk better when lower-quality forages are removed from the diet. The forage will pass out of the rumen quicker and is more digestible, and, as a result, cows consume more dry matter and make more milk.

* Shop around for high-quality alfalfa hay. The impact of the cost of a ton of alfalfa hay on the total feed cost per cow still makes high-quality hay a good buy in many situations. Work with your nutritionist.

* Purchase high-quality alfalfa hay (relative feed value greater than 180) if at a reasonable price. What is reasonable? A place to start is the relative feeding value of alfalfa hay when compared with the price of corn grain and soybean meal. Caution: This does not set the price but gives you a relative price comparison. In other words, if you can buy it and get it delivered to the yard at this price or lower, consider it. Various feed evaluation programs are available on the Internet. FEEDVAL is a good place to start. Check out North Carolina State University's site at http://www.ag- econ.ncsu.edu/faculty/benson/FEEDVAL2004.xls and the University of Wisconsin's site at http://www.uwex.edu/ces/dairynutrition/documents/FEEDVALComparative.xls.

* Consider planting alternative annual crops for heifers and dry cows to spare higher-quality forage for the milking herd. Forage sorghum can be planted later in the growing season and result in good yields for silage or grazing. Sorghum should be harvested after it reaches at least 18 inches in height and before it heads out. Brown midrib varieties of sorghum have lower lignin contents and are more digestible than regular varieties, and can be fed to high-performance cattle, such as lactating dairy cows.

* Group cows within the dairy herd and feed the best-quality forages to the money makers: the early lactation or high-producing cows. Later-lactation cows have lower nutritional requirements and can consume more forage, including greater amounts of lower-quality forages.

* Incorporate more grain or fat supplements into the diet to supply more energy.

Fats include whole cottonseed, whole soybeans or other ruminally inert fat sources. Dried distillers grains most often contain 8 to 12 percent crude fat, so make sure to work with your nutritionist to provide adequate but not excessive amounts of different types of fat.

* Replace some of the lower-quality forage with commercially available forage extenders or forage/grain replacements to increase the energy density of the diet.

"Producers also need to remember that wet years often mean increased incidents of plant diseases, which can result in increased concentrations of mycotoxins in hay, silage, baleage or grain," Schroeder cautions. "Specifically, you might see increased concentrations of the mycotoxins DON (deoxynivalenol or vomitoxin) and zearalenone."

DON can decrease daily feed intake in dairy cows and depress the immune system.

Zearalenone can cause poor reproductive performance and mammary gland enlargement in virgin heifers.

Producers who suspect problems should have their crop tested for the presence of mycotoxins. If mycotoxins are present, producers will need to reduce the amount of the forage or grain they feed their dairy cattle to decrease the amount of mycotoxins the animals consume.

"Work with your veterinarian and nutritionist to calculate the best way to utilize this crop," Schroeder advises.


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