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Livestock Producers have Options for Dealing with Forage Shortage

How to cope with declining forage supplies.

June 2017

J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Dairy Cattle Specialist Emeritus

This summer's drought in the northern Great Plains is forcing many livestock producers to reassess how they feed and manage their herds.

Forage shortages are one of the many cost-related challenges they face as drought conditions in much of North Dakota.

Planning for forage supply problems now could save you money later this year, says North Dakota State University Extension Service dairy specialist emeritus J.W. Schroeder.

He has this advice for producers on coping with declining forage supplies:

  • Assess your forage supply reserves. What do you have on hand? What can you reasonably expect to harvest?
  • Don't sell corn silage short. Supplemented with protein, it may be an attractive alternative to alfalfa.
  • Review what's available locally. Only one-fourth to one-third of your forage needs to be top quality (150 to 170 relative feed value) to maintain herd productivity. As much as 75 percent of your forage can come from stocks of mid-quality hay and even some low-quality hay.
  • Consulting with your feed company representative or nutritionist is critical. Once you start altering your rations by using mid-quality forages and bypass protein, knowing how ingredients fit together is essential.
  • Be creative. With your nutritionist's help, a little creativity can save you money. Once you have determined your needs, you have lots of ways to feed cows. Since commercial hay prices are running high, you may want to pursue supplies of coproducts, such as malt sprouts, wheat middlings and other protein sources such as corn gluten feed and distillers grains.
  • Cull your herd wisely. Evaluating each cow to determine if it is pulling its weight becomes especially important when feed costs rise. Establish firm criteria for what cows need to produce in order to remain in the herd.

However, producers who decide to feed commodities need to be aware of some issues, Schroeder cautions. One is feed value. Corn gluten feed, for example, is high in total protein, but it is mostly degradable protein that will need to be supplemented with bypass protein, such as roasted soybeans. Distillers grains have double the bypass protein of corn gluten feed and could be a better deal, even if it is more expensive per ton.

"Remember that coproducts don’t replace forages; they only supplement them," he says. "But they will help you extend your forage supplies by as much as 20 percent." Producers also need to know that coproducts typically are sold by the semi truckload. Working with your nutritionist can help you determine how to best use locally available coproduct.

Another issue is the variability of nutrient and moisture content of coproduct feeds. Testing each load will help dairy producers make necessary ration adjustments.

Dairy producers should be aware of the drawbacks when using coproducts in dry-cow programs, according to Schroeder. The program usually involves feeding cows 3 to 5 pounds of coproduct with medium-quality forage free-choice. The program is meant to maintain the cow's body condition, balance minerals to prevent milk fever and provide a bulky diet to maintain tone of the digestive tract. However, most grains and many coproducts have particles which are too small to enhance digestive tract tone, and they can be too high in energy, resulting in cows gaining too much condition.

By working with their nutritionist, dairy producers can combine feeds such as cottonseed hulls, soybean hulls, whole cottonseed, wheat midds, soybean meal, canola meal, distillers grains and limestone as a short-term substitute for forage, he says.

If pastures do become available, producers need to remember vegetative grass has little forage (roughage) value, he says. That means they will need to add byproducts, such as high fiber coproducts, to the ration to stimulate cud chewing activity and add bulk to the diet.

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