A client recently asked me for an audiobook title suggestion for him to listen to on a long drive. I asked him if he’d ever read The Time it Never Rained by Elmer Kelton. As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized that was probably not the best pick for a dairy producer from Kansas heading on vacation. With drought-stricken corn in his rearview mirror on his way out of town, a historical fiction novel about the eight-year drought in West Texas in the 1950s might not be the best choice.
Another bad choice would have been The Worst Hard Times, which is a book detailing the plight of farmers and ranchers in the High Plains during the Dust Bowl. Both are very good reads that I would recommend to anyone connected to agriculture. However, if you are out West now trying to grow crops in a significant drought, I’d suggest you maybe wait until the rains return. And they will return. Some in the region have started catching some showers recently and there is some optimism for fall crops.
I’m not sure when the drought began, nor how long it will carry on. However, that’s probably not as important as each individual dairy’s forage inventory. In every case out West, we are making forage reductions to stretch whatever inventory exits. This is challenging work, but so far, so good.
To really be successful at this effort, you must be creative, have an open mind, and remember that cow health, and more notably, rumen health, must be at the center of every consideration.
Start with these facts
The major principle to keep in mind is that dairy cows nor dairy replacements have a forage level minimum requirement. There are a few related requirements, both minimums and maximums to keep in mind. However, forage isn’t one of them. This gives us the flexibility we need to stretch forage inventory.
Now comes the big disconnect with a long-standing dairy production principle that needs to be discussed. High-quality forage is among the most often mentioned keys to high and profitable milk production. If the definition of high-quality forage is that the silage or hay is free from mold, weeds, and other contaminants and underwent a good fermentation, then yes, quality forage is very important. If by quality forage you mean high digestibility, low maturity and the like, I am not so sure. If we really look at nutrient delivery for supporting milk production and growth, and we are feeding cows with limited water impacting the quantity of forage available, the higher maturity, lower digestibility forage may be the better choice.
It’s about the fiber
For this discussion, let’s not consider quality forage based on grain content of corn silage either. Instead, let’s just focus on the digestibility of the fiber portion. In corn silage, it’s the stalk we really need; we can buy corn grain. In small grain forages and even for alfalfa, it’s not so much the high protein we need, we can buy protein in various forms. It’s the volume of neutral detergent fiber (NDF) that is really the pinch point on so many rations out West.
This becomes doubly impactful when the dairy owns the ground where anything from alfalfa hay to small grains or summer annuals are grown for dairy rations. Getting more total tons by harvesting at higher maturity not only reduces the cost per ton, but it also provides more of the nutrient that seems to be the hardest to get enough of.
What should we call this important nutrient?
I’ll suggest we call it palatable, well-processed physical forage fiber. The rest of the ration truly revolves around this one nutrient. There are numerous values on your forage test that describe what we are discussing here. Pick one and formulate around it.
To make this effort of stretching forage really work, you just need to have high-quality fibrous by-products like soybean hulls, corn gluten, beet pulp, wheat middlings, almond hulls, or the like. These higher fiber forages will help stretch their own inventory by having a lower feed rate per cow. The trick is that you can’t make up the freed-up ration space with corn. Digestible fiber containing by-products fill the space.
One last thing must be said, and it relates to the physical form of the diet and the resulting impact on intake, sorting, and the ability to build a healthy forage mat in the rumen. Careful and frequent use of a Penn State Particle Separator can help ensure that your lower forage, higher by-product diet will be safe for the cow. There are solid physical effective neutral detergent fiber (peNDF) recommendations that must be followed for success. It is likely that some producers out West might be surprised how short a TMR can be and still work well for milk production and cow health.
Though feeding dairy cows during a drought is stressful to all involved, it is also a time to remember the flexibility we have in ration design. I’m not saying that every ration you build like this will be your favorite ration. But to be sure, we all have biases in feeding principles that may not be as critical as we think they are.
Stretch forage where you can, be smart about buying the right by-products that can help the stretch. Watch out for the higher levels of unsaturated fatty acids that are common in some by-products that can hurt butterfat. Spend a little more time evaluating cud chewing activity and manure health when feeding a lower forage diet. You know the warning signs, so don’t get caught pushing this too far.
Always watch the cows.
They will be the final judge.