With hay demand high and the supply dwindling, dairy producers need to lock in their winter and spring feeds now – if they haven’t already, says Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois emeritus Extension dairy nutritionist.

Yet they need to know what they can afford to feed their cows.

“We’re hearing hay prices as high as $300/ton; a lot of $250-260/ton hay in Illinois as well,” said Hutjens in a Dec. 9 phone interview.

Good-quality dairy hay, at 180 or higher relative forage quality (RFQ), is valued at $1.44 per point, he pointed out. “Normally, in the Midwest, we expect prices like 90¢, $1 or $1.10 per RFQ point. Now, we see this big jump.”

“What is hay worth?” he queried. “I looked at two ways of determining this. First you can say, ‘If I put in 5 lbs/cow of this top-quality hay (in my ration), what kind of response do I get from my cows? It looks like I need about 3-plus pounds more milk to cover that cost.’ ”

At $260/ton, or 13¢/lb, the dairy nutritionist said, that puts the 5-lb hay feed cost at 65¢/cow. “If milk is, say, 20¢/lb ($20/cwt), I need about 3.25 lbs of milk to cover the cost. That’s one way a farmer could look at it.”

Another way to determine breakeven costs is to use a software program like The Ohio State University’s Sesame (www.sesamesoft.com), he said. “Sesame summarized the breakeven price for that kind of hay at about $249/ton based on $6-6.50/bu corn and $330/ton soybean meal. Sesame evaluates 30 different feedstuffs and comes up with a weighted value.”

A question producers regularly ask Hutjens: “What’s the minimum amount of hay I can get away with” without losing milk production?

“You probably need a minimum of about 1% of the cow’s body weight as forage dry matter. Another guideline is 5-7 lbs of hay per head, which may meet the Penn State shaker box guideline on the top box for your TMR (10-12% of the total TMR wet weight).”

That depends, he said, on how the feed is processed and the amount of forage NDF, or neutral detergent fiber, is available in the total mixed ration. “Other people recommend 21% forage NDF, which can be lowered to 19% or 20%, which is calculated by some of our software programs as well.

“Then you can also look at it from a different perspective – chemical fiber, or how much total NDF you have. A pound of NDF from soy hulls, chemically, is the same as a pound of NDF from hay. But physically it isn’t; it’s ground to a fine particle size and it doesn’t float in the rumen, it doesn’t cause cud chewing and doesn’t have much impact on rate of passage,” Hutjens pointed out.

Straw can provide physical fiber. “A pound of straw will function like 2-3 lbs of hay, so that could be another alternative. But remember that straw is not alfalfa hay. It has a total different set of dynamics in terms of rate of passage, nutrients and impact on dry matter intake.”

Growers can also look at what alternatives they may already own, such as small-grain forages or byproducts such as cornstalks.

“But be careful. Every one of those has limitations. If you’re going in with corn gluten feed to be your forage extender, be well aware, while it has lots of fiber in it, it is not very functional fiber.”

Wet corn gluten prices have risen from $30-40/ton to more than $70/ton. The prices of cottonseed, another alternative, have also been high. In the Sesame software program, cottonseed showed a value of $303/ton; in the University of Wisconsin Feed Val 3 program, which includes oil as a nutrient source, prices have been at $360/ton.

“But if 3 or 4 lbs of hay give you a nice milk response, or 2-3 lbs of fuzzy cottonseed, even though the computers tell us they’re overpriced, never give up milk,” Hutjens said. “With $20/cwt milk, if a cow gives you a couple of extra pounds of milk, that covers a lot of expensive cottonseed and hay and forage.”