Mike Rankin
Most sports fans like a good offensive game. Seeing runs or points scored is generally much more compelling entertainment than a defensive battle. Offense is also more highly valued by general managers, who often have their quarterbacks or home run hitters at the top of the pay scale.

In recent years, baseball geeks and front office staff have become more appreciative of defensive contributions. A part of that change in philosophy is the result of new defensive metrics. One of these measures is called defensive runs saved, or DRS. So, instead of measuring how many runs a player scored or how many home runs they hit, DRS quantifies how many opponents’ runs a player “saved” compared to the average player. The single-season DRS record belongs to Andrelton Simmons, who saved 41 runs above average in 2017 for the Los Angeles Angels.

A run saved is as good as a run earned from a scoreboard perspective. Defense has value; it’s just harder to measure and often doesn’t show up in a box score.

So, what does any of this have to do with forage production? The answer is everything, especially this year.

Sports fans like their home runs, touchdowns, and goals. Forage producers and marketers like big yields. We often measure a production practice or variety’s worth by the return we get, or don’t get, in yield value relative to cost.

Yield shows up in the silo or barn in the form of tons or bales. Much of what we do, or try to do, equates to getting more production from the same land area. A big yield is a home run, and it often lowers our cost per unit.

In baseball, a home run can be neutralized in the next inning with a run scored on a fielding error. In a similar manner, yield is lost beginning with the time that the mower or chopper enters the field. Playing defense in forage production is a matter of eliminating errors and conserving already attained yield. Instead of defensive runs saved, the equivalent forage production statistic would be defensive tons saved. Even more meaningful is defensive nutrients saved.

Playing good forage defense has always been important, but “flashing the leather” in 2022 will have more value than ever before. Forage and replacement nutrient sources are at price points rarely or never seen. For forage sellers, a poor defense will mean significant lost revenue. For forage users, it will translate to higher supplemental feed costs or lost animal production.

There are always going to be some unavoidable dry matter losses during harvest and storage. For haymakers who store dry bales under cover, most of the loss will occur in the field from respiration during wilting and leaf loss when raking, tedding, or baling. Of course, hay feedout losses can also be high depending on feeder type. For haylage and silage, a high percentage of unavoidable losses come during storage and feedout.

Too many forage, dairy, and beef producers accept much higher than unavoidable losses as a normal cost of doing business, which it isn’t. The very best forage managers are around 10% to 15% total loss from field through feedbunk, and that should be the goal. Unfortunately, it’s still not uncommon to measure double that amount . . . or more.

Improving your defensive tons or nutrients saved metrics begins with tedding, raking, or chopping at the correct moisture to minimize field losses. For alfalfa, nearly all of these losses are nutrient-rich leaves. Dry hay storage losses can also mount exponentially when bales are stored outside and uncovered, especially if bale densities are too low.

For haylage, baleage, and silage makers, the big losses are avoided when a rapid fermentation occurs and oxygen is eliminated until feedout. Adequate packing, inoculants, and oxygen barrier films help in this regard. Poorly stored silage can have nutrient and dry matter losses approaching 50%. That will be expensive this year.

Finally, consider where improvements can be made to minimize feedout losses. Hit your forage quality marks, chop at the right moisture and particle size, and ensure your livestock want and can eat what’s put in front of them. Uneaten forage never translates into milk and gain.

Forage production offense is fun, rewarding, and necessary, but it’s likely a good defense, as measured by tons and nutrients saved, that will bring home the profit trophy in 2022.

This article appeared in the April/May 2022 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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