Mike Hutjens is predicting a long, hard winter and he's not talking about the weather. He's referring to the dilemma many dairy producers will face in coming months due to escalating hay, corn and soybean prices.

“Thanks to the summer's widespread drought, dairy producers are not going to enjoy the economical feed prices they've had the past few years,” says Hutjens, a University of Illinois dairy nutritionist. “Unfortunately, this puts a real double whammy on them because they're experiencing some very low milk prices.”

Hutjens says corn and soybeans could reach $3 and $6/bu, respectively.

“We'll know more about the corn situation when the combines start to roll; however, it's already a given that prices are going up. Soybean prices will depend somewhat on the South American crop.”

Hay prices are definitely reflecting tight supplies, reports Dave Petritz, Purdue University ag economist.

“Alfalfa hay prices averaged $102/ton nationwide in mid-July — the third highest price ever recorded for July,” says Petritz.

To trim feed costs, Hutjens encourages producers to look at several options. But he's not optimistic about what they'll find.

“I'm not sure there's a super buy out there right now,” he says.

Jim Linn, University of Minnesota extension dairy nutritionist, concurs.

“Commodity prices are going to rise as corn and soybean prices go up, because many commodities are priced against those two competing feed substances,” Linn points out. “At the moment, cottonseed is a pretty good buy, but supposedly there are going to be fewer acres of cotton harvested this year, so I don't know how long that's going to last.”

Hutjens says to consider late-harvested forages, starch substitutes and protein alternatives to help meet feed needs.

“Any additional forages dairy producers can get are going to be a tremendous plus,” he says.

At press time, he was encouraging dairy producers to get a fourth, and maybe a fifth, cutting of hay, if possible.

“If they can catch another cutting in early September and then another after a killing frost — without causing any agronomic damage — that's certainly worth doing.”

Utilizing drought-stressed corn silage is another way to beef up forage supplies.

“Even with its barren stalks and ears that didn't fill properly, drought-stressed corn silage will feed very well,” says the nutritionist.

He encouraged Illinois dairy producers to buy standing corn from their neighbors who don't have livestock.

“Other than possible insurance payments, that will probably be one of the only opportunities those crop farmers will have to capture some value from that land.”

According to Bill Weiss, an Ohio State University animal scientist, the energy level in drought-stressed corn silage is generally 5-10% below that of normal corn silage.

“Drought-stressed silage is lower in starch and higher in fiber and protein,” notes Weiss.

To offset that lower starch content, additional starch needs to be added to the TMR.

“Drought-stressed corn silage must be tested for nutritional value so that the appropriate diet changes can be made,” advises Weiss.

Hutjens predicts that a few producers will eye bakery by-products, such as out-of-date cookies, bread, pizza crusts and pasta.

“Certainly, these can be a good source of starch,” he says.

To find out if these products are available in your area, contact your local co-op, feed company or commodity broker.

“A producer's ability to handle large quantities of these feeds needs to be considered; I don't know if they would work for a 50-cow dairy herd,” Hutjens adds.

Other starch alternatives include corn-gluten feed and hominy, if they're affordable.

“Those products have some starch, but not a great deal, as some of it has been taken out for other uses, such as fuel or sweeteners,” says Hutjens, who also suggests wheat mids.

Protein alternatives to soybean meal include distiller's grain, brewery by-products and pork or poultry meat and bone by-products.

“Distiller's grain coming off of ethanol plants is a very viable alternative if it's locally available and priced right. Many protein alternatives are wet, which limits how far they can be economically transported,” says Hutjens.

“In the Midwest, we have a lot of new ethanol plants coming on line,” says Linn. “In Minnesota, there are 13 or 14 ethanol plants in operation, so a lot of distiller's grain — wet or dry — is available. Distiller's grain is very good feed, but you have to use it in limited quantities. If you have a high corn silage diet, 3-4 lbs/cow/day is enough. If you're fortunate to have a high alfalfa diet, 5 lbs works.”

In past years, Canadian-grown canola has been a good protein source for dairy rations. But drought across the Alberta Plains decreased this year's yields by up to 40%.

“Barley — usually a good source of starch — has been hit hard by the Canadian drought, too,” says Hutjens.