Alternative feeds may help beef, dairy producers facing forage shortfalls

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/FitchyImages
© GettyImages/FitchyImages

Related tags forage rumen Dairy Beef Beef Livestock

Delayed plantings, wet spring weather and damaged alfalfa crops are combining to generate forage and hay challenges for beef and dairy producers, however, alternative feed sources do remain, say experts.

Forage production in some parts of the US saw more damage coming through the spring planting season than corn and soybeans did, said Bill Weiss, professor in the department of animal sciences with Ohio State University.

“With the winter we lost a lot of alfalfa and then with the rains we never got in the fields to make any hay,”​ he told us. “The alfalfa took such a beating [that] the fields were weedy and grassy – it hurt the quality.”

There are also some concerns regarding the quality of corn silage following the late planting that could create challenges for dairy producers, he said.

Jason Hartschuh, agriculture and natural resources extension educator with Ohio State University Extension, said factors such as proper storage also should be considered. These include that the hay had been properly dried before it was stored, that it didn’t get hot in storage – which would lower protein content – and that the hay isn’t moldy.

Also, because some fields flooded plants may be harvested with dirt, he told us. Dirty hay can be stored the same way as other hay, but it is even more important to make sure the feed is dry, as dirt can hold moisture.

Looking at a forage test, a higher than usual ash content could be an indicator that dirt, mud or dust is present, said Hartschuh. Hay that was made too wet or heated in storage could have levels of ADF-CP higher than 10% of total forage crude protein instead of in a more typical 4% to 8% range.

USDA cover crop fact box

In an effort to ease the anticipated shortage in hay and forage, the US Department of Agriculture changed​ when cover crops can be harvested or grazed on fields where farmers were prevented from planting their intended crop.

Previously, producers could not harvest the cover crop on prevent plant acres until November 1. That has been changed to September 1.

Dairy feed alternatives

For dairy producers, an initial step toward establishing forage and hay supplies for the winter will be to take an inventory of what they currently have, said Weiss.

“If it looks like you’ve got corn silage, back it down now to make it last longer,”​ he said. However, there is a limit to how little forage can be fed before cows start to have health issues, he added.  

Dietary starch, like the amount of corn in the ration, needs to be reduced if less forage is fed to maintain rumen health, he said. “There are a lot of by-products like distillers’ grains, brewers’ grains, wheat byproducts – a lot of the byproducts of human food are high in fiber – so we can bring a lot of those in that will dilute the starch and allow us to feed lower forage diets,”​ he added.

When looking for alternative feeds, cottonseed could be an easy switch in terms of use as it feeds like a forage, he said.  

“It might be a little expensive, though this year hay is really expensive,”​ Weiss said.

For producers concerned about the quality of forage and hay, those feed ingredients could be used at a lower rate, he said. Also, chopping ingredients can make use “less negative.”

“There are options [but] the options may not be as good as high-quality forage diets,”​ he said.

Additionally, for dairy producers who have access to cover crops the recommendation is to harvest early in September, said Weiss. Adding, “The less mature a forage is, the higher quality – some of the cover crops can be high quality.”

Cover crops including Sudan grass, sorghum or some rye varieties would work in dairy rations along with some of the small grains like oat or wheat forage, he said. However, other options might only provide a medium quality forage for a dairy cow.

It can be more challenging at that time of year to make hay, but the crop also could be made into silage, which also would work in a diet, Weiss said. “A lot of guys put in corn as a cover crop and they can harvest it for silage – producers may want to look at buying some of that crop to supplement.”

When buying hay this year base price on a nutrient analysis because there is going to be some of poor quality, he said. But, also be willing to adjust the price up if it is of good quality.

“Forage analysis is always important, but this year there’s more because there is such a variation,”​ Weiss said. Also, always avoid moldy hay.

Feeding beef cattle  

Wet conditions in the spring and low amounts of carryover for hay and forage feeds also will be a factor for beef cattle producers, said Kevin Gould, beef educator with Michigan State University Extension. However, information​ on alternatives and management practices is available.  

Cow-calf producers will need to provide enough forage to keep the rumen healthy, he told us. However, alternative forages are accessible, like corn silage.

Working with a nutritionist or extension agent is suggested for producers looking to incorporate alternative feeds into their diets, he said.

Using alternative forages may call for custom harvesting or looking int bagging and fermenting feeds, he said. Baling corn stocks or soybean reside or grazing those fields also could be options.

“Corn stocks have been used for many years – they may be harder to find – and [it] might be a good idea to look at wrapping corn stocks if we have excess moisture,” ​Gould said. “Wrapping those and making a fermented feed and making a more stable feedstock.”

Concentrate also can be used in diets, depending on prices, he said.

“Corn tends to be the most cost-effective [and it] can add up to about 40% dry matter basis in a limited feeding system,” ​he said. “That may be a cheaper, more cost-effective option but it does require additional labor and different management.”

However, there have been concerns that the price of corn could increase as more information about this year’s production becomes available, he added.

Feedlot producers focus on energy, protein and forage in their diets, said Gould. “Energy-wise wheat has gotten a little cheaper, so some of that could come into the feed,”​ he added.

“This year, with corn still hovering around $4 a bushel, if I had the need to buy corn this year, in this price range, I’d be locking in the corn now,” ​he said.  

“Harvesting is going to be a challenge – it’s going to be an extended crop harvest because of the variability [in crop maturity] and they’re going to be struggling with killing frost,”​ he added.

There could be several ways to add forage into a diet, however, hay is likely to be the most expensive forage ingredient this year, he said. The variability in forage this year makes it more important for producers to have their feeds analyzed.

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