Extending Depleted Forage Stocks

It’s been a difficult season to say the least! The drought of 2018 has had a drastic effect on forage stocks  which have been reserved for winter feeding with Dry Matter (DM) yields of grass on farm estimated to be down up to 50% compared to 2017.

This, coupled with the wet and cold spring, when last year’s forage stocks were depleted, many farmers have fed a quantity of their winter forage as a buff er over the summer. Forage stocks are going to be tight this winter, therefore, a strategy needs to be set in place early to manage them.

How much forage do you have?

EXTENDING DEPLETED FORAGE STOCKSIf you haven’t done so already, you need to evaluate the forage you already have stored. Although later cuts of silage haven’t come into the clamp yet or the maize silage harvest, it is essential to act quickly and estimate stocks which haven’t been harvested yet and adjust calculation after harvest. Be reserved on estimated maize silage harvest as crops are very variable and thinner than usual. A study by Cornell University in 2016 showed that maize silage grown under drought conditions has a lower lignin and uNDF content meaning the plant is far more digestible, we need to take this into account whilst rationing.

Calculating forage stocks on a DM basis and evaluating requirements of forage DM from now until the spring to include the milking herd along with any other stock on the farm including dairy young stock and beef animals. Working on estimated DM intakes for the winter we will be able to have an estimated requirement for forage to give us an idea of the shortfall and be able to sway management decisions early.

There is no room for passengers this year, although the price of cull cows has dropped, these cows are eating valuable forage and should be culled early. Culling any poor performing, lame and high SCC cows is critical to do now. Reducing stocking rates can increase overall feed efficiency, due to a greater rumen balance and less slug and aggressive feeding. Any excess dairy youngstock or beef animals on farm, should be considered for the sale depending on how your forage stocks are looking.

It is going to be important to target your best forage to the cows that need it this winter, so grouping cows based on performance could be an option. However, we need to ensure that we do not loose condition on late lactation cows and do not underfeed the cows through the dry period, or milk yield will be depressed going into the next lactation.

Clamp management will be more important this year as we cannot afford waste, keeping a clean level surface on the face of the pit is important to minimise wastage and spoilage. Although tempting, any spoilage on the shoulders and top of the clamp should not go into the mixer wagon and should still be discarded.

Purchasing forage may be an option to extend forage stocks but, with stocks low and prices rising, what could be the alternatives to feed to extend forages? Everything needs to be costed out on a DM basis with the quality of the raw material taken in to account. Moist feeds are in short supply with loads being unreliable.

High fibre/ forage extender dry blends are an option, premixing with water the night before feed out at a rate of 1:1, will give you a 45% DM moist feed which can bulk up the diet but also add moisture to many dry forages being fed this winter.

The cows’ health and rumen function is critical, running low forage diets can put the cows at risk and unbalance the rumen. Working to figures such as 21% NDF for forage and 0.25%
bodyweight of uNDF is critical to ensure rumen health. New NDF analytics coming from Cornell University can be essential to understanding out forage and fibre this winter.

Adding hay or straw to diets can be a great option to add fibre to diets, although prices can be expensive. NIS (nutritionally improved straw) can be a great tool in increasing uNDF and slow pool NDF without affecting intakes and performance.

Due to a possible early maize silage harvest, thinking of sowing westerwolds, italian ryegrass or forage rye after the maize and harvest in late April/early May could be an option for forage in
late spring or as a buffer next summer when rebuilding forage stocks will be a clear focus.

Any management decision or purchase needs to be calculated with the return on investment in mind. It is going to be an expensive winter with higher feeding rates likely in line with higher raw material prices. Purchased feed costs, including forage, per litre will need to be monitored, this could be 2-4 ppl higher this winter due to higher raw material costs, higher feed rates and purchasing forage. Rising milk prices will help cover this cost, but depending on your own personal situation, looking to reduce stocking rates further and culling more cows may be a financially better option if there is no forage available.

Please contact a member of the Dairy Technical Team to assist you in your forage management this winter. Click here to find your local specialist.

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