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How to manage a short feed inventoryHow to manage a short feed inventory

Dairy Team: Drought has left many cattle producers with low feed supplies. Here are strategies to help you make it through.

August 16, 2023

4 Min Read
Holstein dairy cows at feeder
BOOST FEED INVENTORY: Because corn silage is an end-of-season crop, many producers can harvest corn that was intended for grain as silage to compensate for a shortage of hay crops. Farm Progress

by Matt Lippert

Through June and July, much of the Midwest, including Wisconsin, experienced a flash drought. Soil moisture rapidly went from adequate to dry. By August, it was clear many areas would be unable to catch up. Depending on where the summer storms popped up, there were winners and losers. Soil type helped some, but if there is no rain at all, there isn’t a soil heavy enough to compensate for that.

Forage production has been cut statewide. Some were lucky and spotty rain and relatively cool nights allowed for corn development. But even where the corn pulled through, much less haylage was made across all cuttings. The shortage leads to pastures being supplemented or cattle being sold.

Because corn silage is an end-of-season crop, many producers can harvest corn that was intended for grain as silage to compensate for a shortage of hay crops. That is an excellent strategy. But let’s consider how bad the problem can still be:

  • Some dairies harvest all of their corn for silage — there are no flex acres to divert from grain.

  • If haylage is short and corn silage yield is way down due to drought stress, it will take many more acres of corn to fill the bunker.

On the plus side, inventories were adequate going into 2023. Due to dry weather, most crops were planted in a timely manner, and forage quality has been good.

What can you do?

If you are forced to make an adjustment, do so immediately so the change can be less severe — accurate inventories are required. Here are online tools for calculating inventory or for buying forage.

If you found some emergency feed or Conservation Reserve Program acres and the quality is low, either allocate to replacement animals supplemented with concentrates to maintain adequate energy or include at a low level in lactation diets.

As you read this, some emergency alternative opportunities have passed. Such things include growing drought-tolerant sorghums or seeding oats for fall harvest. Harvesting soybeans for silage may still be an option. Seeding triticale, rye or other spring-harvested mixtures may give you more forage earlier in the spring than if you do not grow winter annuals.

You should do everything possible to minimize shrink. This should always be the case, but especially this year.

High-fiber feeds

Since the drought and subsequent forage shortage began, there have been reasonable opportunities to contract corn and byproducts such as corn gluten feed, distillers grain and other high-fiber feeds at a reasonable cost. High-fiber feeds can replace forage fiber, extending your forage inventory. Thanks to weak exports and much of the rest of the country having better growing conditions, these reasonably priced alternatives have been available.

Other high-fiber, forage-extending byproduct feeds include soy hulls, cottonseed and wheat middlings.

If corn didn’t pollinate well, starch may also need to be extended, not just fiber; in addition to the byproducts already mentioned, consider whey to replace starch.

We couldn’t predict the drought — we never can. A good idea is to insure crops and dairy margin. This is probably not the year to push for high-forage diets. There is a broad range of forage inclusion in dairy diets, and it can easily go below 40% forage if the type and amount of fiber are adequate.

Dropping the herd size, even just 1% to 2%, will often not reduce milk production because of cows adjusting favorably to less crowding. Often, there are more animals than needed in the replacement herd, too.

Increasing the amount of purchased forages, which may be lower in quality, and increasing the protein concentrate in the rations will not impact animal performance, especially if the feed is spread out over an entire year. Feeding some other feed, be it emergency-seeded crops or CRP hay, can help if it is allocated to the right group and used in moderation.

Talk to your lender

Buying corn that you were supposed to grow is more economical than buying hay from out of state, but in either case, buying feed you hadn’t intended will probably get your banker’s attention. Tell them your plans first. They know there is a drought. 

Droughts are recalled similarly to hurricanes. Think about hurricanes Katrina and Maria, and the droughts of 1976, 1988 and 2012. Few of us today recall the Dust Bowl years, but they were substantial. We share stories like “Remember the year we harvested the cattail pond to feed the steers?” Problems need to be looked at as opportunities. This year can be remembered as the opportunity of 2023.

Lippert is the University of Wisconsin Extension dairy and livestock agent for Wood and Clark counties.

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