During a recent podcast interview with Professional Dairy Producers (PDP), I was asked what was on my mind as of late. Outside of relocating our family into the countryside, there are four or five topics occupying space in my increasingly bald head. I’ll center on two of these, aiming to pass along relevant insights for your dairy as we transition into full swing with the 2024 growing season.

Before strategizing for the upcoming season, let’s reflect back. Corn grain particle size and starch digestibility are, oddly, talking points as of late. Starch digestibility is annually a great discussion point, but that’s usually following corn harvest for silage or high-moisture corn. This spring, I’ve had numerous conversations about corn grain particle size and starch digestibility.

This topic stems back decades now, but as dairy economics are tight, we’re constantly looking to carve out margin opportunities. Grain and starch digestibility continues to be an area where there seems to be upside potential. Over the past couple of years, corn grain seems to have been a bit less digestible for a variety of reasons, and pulverized corn is increasingly important. The benchmarks have changed as a result, much like how we’ve changed the goal posts for kernel processing score or pushed below Mike Hutjens’ fecal starch benchmarks from the University of Illinois. The KPS benchmark used to be 60 to 70; now we’re targeting 80. Hutjens moved us forward by teaching us to manage feeds and diets to target fecal starch results at 2% to 3%; now the goal is to get less than 1%.

Similarly, today’s ground corn particle size benchmark is sub-300 micron, and the finer, the better. I know for a fact that there are grinders capable of achieving near 200-micron mean particle size in ground corn. That’s not to say this fine corn is priced the same as coarser corn or fits in your rations economically, but it’s possible! If you’re feeding fine ground corn, make sure your herd is getting the most out of it.

This year’s growing conditions

Transitioning to the 2024 growing season ahead, questions are rolling in about how the crop will come out of a generally warmer winter and earlier spring. The first few questions I received related to plant disease or pest pressure we might face with a less harsh winter. Experienced agronomists have advised us to monitor for pest or disease pressure but to not necessarily expect a dramatic difference at this point. The disease triangle will continue to hold true — considering the host/pathogen/environment interaction — and it’s too early to project how any disease will play out.

With winter wheat, triticale, or other forage harvest under way, we can also review critical management points for a successful alfalfa or perennial grass harvest. I’m hearing rumblings that this year’s harvest might be a week or two ahead of schedule. Early season growing degree day accumulation for the Midwest or Northeast aren’t suggesting we’d be a couple weeks early; however, the limited frost in some areas may have put plants in a more aggressive growth pattern to start the year. We’ll watch this play out, and the predictive equations for alfalfa quality (PEAQ) sticks will continue to be very helpful to monitor and target cutting windows for alfalfa. Here is a helpful University of Wisconsin Extension instructional document for the PEAQ stick method.

Begin walking fields and checking PEAQ heights as the plants reach 12 to 16 inches, and check progress every few days. Relative forage quality is largely determined by protein-to-fiber or leaf-to-stem ratio. As the plant grows, the leaves dwindle in volume relative to the stem. Alfalfa can gain roughly 100 to 150 pounds of dry matter per acre per day, yet lose around five points in relative forage quality as the stems stretch out. Bear these benchmarks in mind when planning your targeted quality for first and following cuttings.

I hope expanding upon these couple of hot topics in my mind will be helpful for your operation in the weeks ahead. Forage and grain quality continues to be among the most impactful factors relative to feed conversion efficiency and income over feed cost. We’ll continue to lead in these areas and push new benchmarks in years to come.

To comment, email your remarks to intel@hoards.com.
(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2024
May 2, 2024
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