Wet Weather Plays Havoc with Forage Quality in Northeast

An exceptionally wet spring and a soggy summer has played havoc with forage quality in the Northeast, particularly across large swaths of New York.

Most of New York received 50% more precipitation this spring, delaying corn planting and hay harvest. Growing degree days (GDDs) were also deficit coming into summer, but it was more the lack of sunlight than heat that caused plant growth delays, says Joe Lawrence, a forage specialist with Cornell’s PRO Dairy Program.

The key now, say forage specialists, is to closely manage harvest and storage to get the most out of haylage and corn silage. “We have to recognize what we’re dealing with, and manage appropriately,” Lawrence says.

That means taking lots of forage samples, at harvest and after fermentation, closely tracking forage inventory, and segregating haylage and silage by quality. That will allow farmers to optimize the forage they do have, even if some is of lower quality.

Because wetter than normal forage was likely harvested, there could be a problem with fermentation of haylage, he says. Of particular concern is acetic acid, exceeding 3%. While inoculants are recommended to enhance fermentation, he warns against the use of L. bucneri, which tends to increase acetic acid.

There also might be a temptation to take an extra cutting of alfalfa, but we wary of doing so between mid-August to mid-September. Often times, alfalfa cut at this time will re-grow in the fall but won’t be able to put down sufficient root reserves to survive the winter. Cutting after mid-September is preferred because the crop has established adequate reserves, says Lawrence.

If you need to cut alfalfa in late August or early September, target those fields that you’re willing to sacrifice to winterkill if they don’t put down enough root reserves, Lawrence suggests.

Because corn was planted late or re-planted due to drown outs, it’s an open question whether the crop will mature before frost occurs this fall. “Corn needs 750 to 800 GDDs from silking to maturity,” says Lawrence. “In corn with silking occurring after mid-August, the chances of the crop maturing decreases dramatically.”

He recommends scouting corn fields over the next few weeks to determine which fields are likely to mature and which aren’t. Then prepare to store silage from these fields in different silos or piles so that you can balance rations properly and target the forage to the right groups of cattle. Kernel processing of corn silage is also critical this year to maximize starch and fiber digestibility, Lawrence says.

Forage testing is also essential this year, says Ron Kuck, a dairy and livestock educator with Jefferson County, N.Y. Extension. “Forage analysis are only as good as the samples you take,” he says.

He recommends grabbing a green sample off each load of forage as its brought in, mixing and sending in a composite sample. After fermentation, make sure you get a representative sample of forage from across the face of a feed pile. Because of the wet season, there is also increased risk of mold and mycotoxin contamination. So test forages for those as well, he says.