Forage shortages causing rations to vary greatly

Many dairy farms have experienced shortages in forage supplies from drought conditions over the past two years. These shortages have resulted in wildly swinging rations.

Drought conditions in many areas of Michigan in 2011 and 2012 have led to some real inventory challenges for dairy producers. Many producers who I work with have found themselves in a cycle of running out of haylage, going to a high corn silage ration, then running out of corn silage, only to start the cycle over again with a high haylage diet.

Many previous Michigan State University Extension articles have talked about feed inventory planning and management, including one I wrote in Oct. 2011. One item that is easily overlooked in inventory planning and management is continuing to assess forage resources as the year progresses.

Early on in feeding 2013 corn silage, producers should begin to track actual feed disappearance and compare that to the rations being fed on the farm. Early and regular tracking will allow ration changes to ensure that we feed a more consistent ration while also maintaining an adequate supply to last us 2-4 months past the next harvest.

Measuring how much feed disappears (or is used up) over time can be achieved very simply in bunkers, bags and silos. On covered bunkers measuring the length of the bunker monthly will allow for determination of forage usage. On bags, producers can follow the same method as used on bunkers, and often times they have a great “writing pad” with another bag sitting next to the one they are feeding from. Finally, counting doors in a silo and looking at capacity charts that take into effect moisture can help calculate forage usage out of silos.

All this seems simplistic, but often producers are caught up in day-to-day operations and forget to do this simple check. If we do these monthly checks and make small adjustments to our rations we can build towards a 2-4 month extra supply recommended by Michigan State University Extension to ensure proper ensiling of next year’s forages. We will also avoid having to make drastic changes our rations when we run out of forages. No doubt, it may take more than one year’s harvest to get back to having an adequate surplus, but the path to more consistent rations begins with good feed inventory assessments, planning and management.

Want to see your feed reserves grow even faster? Reducing corn silage shrink from the average 25 percent down to 15 percent would save a 100 cow dairy $3,280 (at $60 corn silage or free up almost 3 acres (at 20 ton/acre yield)) Consider attending one of the MSU Extension’s “Shrink Your Feed Shrink” programs being held in four locations in late January. Sites include Jan. 21: West Olive, Jan. 22: MSU Pavilion, Jan. 23: Bad Axe, Jan. 28: West Branch. For more information on registration, please contact Faith Cullens at 989-224-5249 or

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