Even with milk prices slumping dramatically earlier this year, dairy producers have been reluctant to replace high-quality alfalfa hay in their rations with other ingredients, preliminary results from a survey of Idaho dairies reveal.
University of Idaho Extension dairy specialist Mireille Chahine began her mail survey of the state’s dairies in late October. As of late November, she had received responses from more than 60 producers.
“What we found is that, even with the economic crisis in the dairy industry, there’s been no difference in the amount of hay that they’re feeding in their rations,” says Chahine, adding that all of the producers who have responded so far feed alfalfa hay, with inclusion rates ranging from 10% to 100% of the forage portion of rations.
The responding farmers did cut back on other ration ingredients. Nearly 45% reduced the amount of mineral, vitamin or additive supplementation in an attempt to hold a tighter rein to ration costs, while 37% replaced at least some grain supplementation. Another 26% replaced protein supplementation. “That basically tells me that dairy producers still consider (hay) to be a cheaper source of protein, energy and digestible fiber than other components of the ration,” says Chahine.
She also notes that 35% of the respondents reported that they had a lower inventory of hay on hand at their dairies than they did a year earlier. “Dairy producers this year just didn’t have the cash flow to buy ahead and build up their hay inventories during the growing season like they normally would have,” she says. “A lot of them were buying on a load-by-load basis just to get through the financial pinch.”
The situation seemed to be turning around in recent weeks. A drop in hay prices, due in large part to sluggish demand, was a major factor. Chahine notes that top-quality dairy hay in her part of the country is selling for around $135/ton. A year ago, the price was closer to $250/ton. Along with the adjustment in hay prices, milk prices have been improving slowly and more lenders are once again starting to extend credit to their dairy-producer clients.
“The situation is still somewhat choppy, changing from one week to the next,” says Chahine. “But in conversations I’ve had with dairy producers in the last couple of weeks, several have told me that they’ve either already started building hay stocks again or are planning to do so in the near future. That’s a major improvement over what was going on throughout the summer.”