The challenging late spring and continuing wet weather patterns may mean producers have primarily lower-quality forage available for their dairies. J.W. Schroeder, North Dakota State University Extension dairy specialist, suggests ways to deal with the problem.

  • Feed lower amounts of later-maturity forage and increase the amount of corn silage fed when possible. There is still time to divert acreage toward corn silage. Research and dairy farmers’ experience show that cows, especially early lactation cows, consume more dry matter and make more milk with high-quality forage.
  • Shop around for and buy high-quality alfalfa hay. The impact of the cost of a ton of alfalfa hay on the total feed cost per cow still makes high-quality hay a good buy in many situations. Work with your nutritionist. Buy high-quality, 180-RFV-plus alfalfa hay if reasonably priced. To determine what is reasonable, start with the relative feeding value of alfalfa hay when compared with the price of corn grain and soybean meal. Caution: This doesn't set the price, but gives a relative price comparison. In other words, if you can buy it and get it delivered at this price or lower, consider it. Feed evaluation programs are available on the Internet. FEEDVAL is a good place to start. Check out North Carolina State University’s site and the University of Wisconsin site.
  • Consider planting alternative annual crops for heifers and dry cows to spare higher-quality forage for the milking herd. Forage sorghum can be planted later in the growing season and result in good yields for silage or grazing. Sorghum should be harvested after it reaches at least 18" in height and before it heads out. Brown midrib varieties of sorghum have lower lignin contents and are more digestible than regular varieties and can be fed to lactating dairy cows.
  • Group cows within the dairy herd and feed the best-quality forages to early lactation or high-producing cows. Later-lactation cows have lower nutritional requirements and can consume more forage, including greater amounts of lower-quality forages.
  • Incorporate more grain or fat supplements into the diet to supply more energy. Fats include whole cottonseed, whole soybeans or other ruminally inert fat sources. Dried distillers grains most often contain 8-12% crude fat, so make sure to work with your nutritionist to provide adequate but not excessive amounts of different types of fat.
  • Replace some lower-quality forage with commercially available forage extenders or forage/grain replacements to increase the energy density of the diet.

“Producers also need to remember that wet years often mean increased incidents of plant diseases, which can result in increased concentrations of mycotoxins in hay, silage, baleage or grain,” Schroeder cautions. “Specifically, you might see increased concentrations of the mycotoxins DON (deoxynivalenol or vomitoxin) and zearalenone.”

DON can decrease daily feed intake in dairy cows and depress the immune system. Zearalenone can cause poor reproductive performance and mammary gland enlargement in virgin heifers.

If you suspect problems, have crop tested for the presence of mycotoxins. If they exist, reducing the amount of the forage or grain fed to dairy cattle will also decrease mycotoxins consumed.

“Work with your veterinarian and nutritionist to calculate the best way to utilize this crop,” Schroeder advises.