By Matt Lippert
Even as milk prices have improved, margins remain tight. Cropping challenges in 2019 have resulted in lower forage inventories, lower-quality forages and corn intended for grain being made into silage. The need for purchased supplements of grain, protein and byproducts can easily soak up all the increase in milk income.
Beginning in 2018, we saw decreased hay and forage production due to weather problems, both too wet and too dry. In the winter, there was extensive alfalfa damage; then delayed and no planting occurred in the late spring of 2019. The challenges are widespread.
Cover crops and annual forages largely have been used by this date; however, there is still opportunity to plant some winter cereals for forage production next spring.
The playbook for this type of situation is well-known, but sometimes we forget the many options:
Consider byproducts. Some carry high-quality fiber that will reduce your need for grown forages.
Adjust forage ration. Percent forage in diets can vary a lot. You can dial this down if you are short on forage and replace with byproducts. Balance for effective fiber and energy.
Forward-price byproducts. A market that is short on commodities is jittery, and as a dairy producer, you are likely nervous as well if you are buying more than normal. Reduce the risk and set prices well ahead of delivery.
Use available tools. Determine what feeds fit your herd and which are the better buys. University of Wisconsin Dairy Science has FeedVal v6.0.
Reduce shrink. For forages and commodities, pack and cover bunkers, correctly size feeding faces, and protect commodity storage from wind and rain loss. Wrap bales or get dry hay under a roof.
Calculate and frequently review feed inventories. Slight reductions in a feed now can extend the life of the feed for months.
Manage feeding. Strive to target low-energy feeds away from the milking herd. If you must feed poor forage, dilute the effect by feeding with complementary forages. Combine energy and protein forages so they work together — avoid running out of one so the other must carry the whole load. Protein, amino acid, milk urea nitrogen and energy levels will balance better if prime alfalfa is balanced with corn silage or other feeds.
Manage cattle inventories. Small changes made now in cattle inventory will save a lot of feed. Consider replacement herd inventory, crowding in the milking herd, low-end cows intended for culling and animals being grown for beef.
For people who are not in the business of producing food, instead having companion animals or pets, the amount they are willing to pay for hay will be very different. In tight late winter and delayed spring markets, hay — especially in convenient forms — may more than double in price. Don’t allow yourself to be in that market. You can’t afford to compete in a shortage-fueled hay market with beef or dairy cattle. On the flip side, there can be great rewards for storing hay and having it available for times of shortage. It seems likely that we will have strong hay prices this winter and next spring.
Lippert is the Extension agriculture agent in Wood County, Wis. This column is provided by the University of Wisconsin-Extension Dairy Team.