Weird weather early in the growing season made it tough for growers in many parts of the country to put up top-flight haylage. For dairy producers who will be feeding these low-quality feedstuffs, major hurdles still await.

“A lot of first-crop hay was cut late and a lot of hay was rained on after it was cut,” says Scott Gunderson, an extension dairy agent in Manitowoc County, WI. “Coping with low-quality forage will be a challenge for many producers this fall and winter.”

“Dairy producers will want to work closely with their nutritionists, veterinarians and other advisors on strategies for feeding low-quality material,” adds University of Wisconsin dairy nutritionist Randy Shaver.

Gunderson and Shaver recommend the following for feeding low-quality haylage:

  • Routinely test dry matter content. Dry matters for material going into storage varied widely on many farms. Shaver advises getting good on-farm estimates of dry matter content in the forages, using a microwave oven or Koster tester. Test at least weekly, or anytime there's a significant change in the dry matter content of stored feed.

  • Then lab test to assess crude protein, fiber and energy contents. Gunderson favors wet chemistry analysis over NIR, even though cost can be about double (NIR, $10-$12/sample; wet chemistry, mid-$20s/sample).

    “A wet chemistry analysis may give a better measure of nutrient content,” he says. “In a year like this, with abnormal growing and harvest conditions that can affect the quality of NIR results, it's well worth the cost.”

    Shaver notes that ash levels (which aren't determined very accurately by NIR) bear especially close watching this year.

    “We've seen a fair amount of dirt and mud contamination due to bad harvest conditions, and that's likely to have an effect on energy levels,” he says.

  • If test results show high fiber levels, adjust ration energy. Corn or corn-based products like corn gluten feed or distiller's grain will be many producers' first choice. But some producers in Gunderson's area are using wheat.

    “A number of elevators are docking prices because of scab problems,” he says. “Some producers figure they'll get more for their crop by running it through their milk cows. At low levels, up to 5 lbs/cow/day, it's probably a good move. At higher levels, test mycotoxin concentrations in scabby wheat.”

  • Don't overfeed grain or cows will easily be thrown into acidosis or other metabolic challenges, says Gunderson.

    Shaver recommends grinding corn fine to increase energy availability if it's 27% moisture or less. If corn tests 30% or above for moisture (which may be the case this year because of the weather), rolling is better.

    “Grinding wet corn will turn it into mush,” says Shaver.

  • Dilute low-quality haylage with corn silage. This will likely require adjusting winter corn silage inventory plans. As corn silage levels increase in the ration, adjust grain levels accordingly. Gunderson suggests adding a buffer like sodium bicarbonate when corn silage makes up 50% or more of the ration. For transition cows, adding yeast culture products to the diet will improve digestibility.

  • Dilute low-quality haylage with higher-quality haylage as it becomes available. Producers with multiple storage structures for segregating varying-quality forages will have a leg up on those who don't.

  • Replace low-quality haylage with 4-6 lbs of whole cottonseed per cow per day. Cottonseed is an excellent fiber source, is very digestible and has a high percentage of fat (20%) for energy.

  • Watch for mycotoxins and mold. Lab analysis is not only costly, it's unnecessary in many situations. Take your cue on testing from unusual developments — feed that doesn't look quite right or didn't ferment properly, a flare-up in herd health problems or a surprise production slump.

If tests show high mycotoxin levels, dilute with higher-quality feed, use a binding agent (to tie up some of the mycotoxins) or discard the feed.

“Nobody wants to throw feed away,” says Shaver. “But you have to consider the downside of feeding the bad material. You don't want to end up with ketosis or thin cows or cows that don't breed. It's a matter of risk assessment and risk aversion. Just because you put it up doesn't mean that you want to run it through your cows.”