Will Dry Weather Create Forage Shortages This Winter?

Farmers can take action now to adequately prepare for the winter months. 

We have seen quite dry conditions in much of our region and much of the state this past spring and into early summer. There has been some recent rain. However, it has been sporadic in nature. Some locations have seen a fair amount of rain (even to the point of some local flooding), while others have seen little precipitation or none at all. We have seen drought-stressed corn and regrowth on hay fields (especially late-harvested grass) be minimal at best. Late planted corn has really suffered. Some of the worst has been no-till corn into sod after first cutting. Pasture regrowth has also slowed. I always say “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” That being said, I put together a list of things to think about now before it is too late for them to be effective. 

  • Preserve your hay crop (and corn silage you will be harvesting) well. With tight forage supplies, you can’t afford to incur excessive storage losses. Consider lining your bunker silo walls with plastic. It really does reduce spoilage. Be sure it is packed well. This may also be a year when the oxygen barrier silage covers will really help you. Give them a look. Inoculants will have a greater chance of payback this year as well. 
  • Might you have some third, fourth, or even fifth cutting to harvest late this year? This may be the year to take all you can get off your fields. There certainly is risk (especially with alfalfa), but you may have little choice. If you go to the Pro-Dairy website and search for Resources for Forage Management in a Drought Situation you’ll find some great resources. 
  • If you find that you will be short of forage you need to act NOW to rectify the situation. What can you buy and at what price? The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to find forage to buy. Corn planted that was destined for grain can be diverted to silage. If you have neighbors who grow corn grain, they may be willing to sell it as silage. 
  • Line up supplies of forage extenders now. Feedstuffs such as wet brewers’ grain, soy hulls, citrus pulp, beet pulp, wheat midds, cottonseed, and others are ingredients often used to extend forage supplies. The sooner you incorporate a forage extender into the diet, the greater the impact will be. They will cost you some money. However, they may be a better bet than trying to secure additional forage when everyone around you is also short on forage. In addition, some of these ingredients may provide a production boost. For some that may not be desirable if your cooperative or handler caps your production output. 
  • Determine the inventory you have. You may want to estimate it now and then recheck it after corn silage (CS) harvest. Your nutritionist should be able to assist you in determining your feed inventory. If you will be short, the sooner you implement a plan to deal with it, the better off you will be. A small forage savings plan implemented over a long period of time can really add up. 
  • Don’t harvest your CS too soon. Yields are maximized near 65% moisture, and losses during feeding, storage, and harvesting are minimized. If there is a year to maximize yields, this is it.
  • Harvesting at 34% to 35% dry matter will also increase the energy concentration in your CS because starch levels will have increased. Use a Koster tester to check dry matters on field samples that you chop up. Work done at Miner Institute has shown that these sample dry matters consistently run about two points higher than what your feed out dry matter is. In other words, a dry matter reading you get from your Koster tester that says 34% dry matter will come back 32% dry matter at feed out. You should take that into account when making your harvest decisions. 
  • Kernel processing is beneficial most years. If you are not kernel processing and you suspect that kernels will be hard, consult with your nutritionist prior to harvest. We do not want to be sending corn kernels out the back of the cow into the manure. If your ration has enough effective fiber from other sources (other than CS), you may be able to chop finer (to break kernels) without any health risks to your herd. But be sure to double-check with your nutritionist first. 
  • Consider heavier culling. This may include some youngstock. Be careful! You’ll need youngstock to maintain cow numbers and to rebuild the herd. You need to be selective. Those heifers that had respiratory problems as calves are prime candidates. If you go to the Pro-Dairy website and search for Ten Key Herd Management Opportunities on Dairy Farms During Low Margin Times, you’ll find some great resources. 



David Balbian

David R. Balbian is the Area Dairy Management Specialist for the CCE Central New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Team.