Not only are many Upper Midwest dairy farms heading into the winter feeding season with a shortage of some staple feeds but they are also coping with uneven and unusual qualities in at least a portion of those feeds.
That's not news to them but it served as a reason for the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin to invite University of Illinois Extension Service dairy specialist Mike Hutjens to be their leadoff speaker at a Dairy Feeds and Nutrition Conference here on Oct. 22 and another at Eau Claire the next day.
Hutjens cited forage supplies as one of the main challenges for putting up feed for upcoming months because of the widespread winterkill of alfalfa going into the 2013 growing season - estimates of losses of up to 1 million acres in Wisconsin and a combined total of 750,000 acres in Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota.
Combined with the carryover effects of the drought in a wide area of the United States in the past two years, supplies of legume forages were tight even before the exports now going to China from the western part of the country, Hutjens observed.
He noted that the Chinese are paying $350 for a ton of alfalfa hay at the ports.
"What cards are we holding?" is a question that dairy farmers and herd nutritionists have asked or should be asking themselves, Hutjens indicated.
He noted that forage inventories are also short in many cases because there is little or no carryover of corn silage from the drought-affected 2012 crop.
Some farmers planted three crops of corn this year - in May, June, and July, Hutjens remarked.
He pointed out that the late-planted corn already or yet to be harvested could be low in starch and have feeding quality of a grass instead.
To a question of harvesting immature soybeans as a forage feed, Hutjens called for being aware of any restrictions on doing so based on what herbicide or insecticide was applied to the crop.
The very late cuttings of alfalfa are likely to have traits resembling candy and to have a very high relative feed quality, he added.
Laboratory results on haylage, dry silage, and corn silage from the 2013 harvest are generating some "sobering data" on nutritional quality and digestibility, Hutjens reported.
The Rock River tests on haylage and hay are showing a relatively low protein average of 17.9 percent and a neutral detergent fiber digestion of 38.1 percent after 30 hours, he stated.
Similarly, the corn silage tested by Rock River is showing a multi-year low average of 7.9 percent protein, Hutjens continued.
On the upside, the starch content average of 26.7 percent is more than twice that of the 2012 crop tests, which were dragged down by the drought-affected corn that had minimal pollination, he noted.
Another concern is the somewhat limited supply and price increase for fuzzy cottonseed, which Hutjens considers to be "a tremendous feed in a high corn silage ration."
He told a questioner that he shouldn't have turned down a price offer of $360 per ton, provided that is of good quality.
For each Holstein cow (milking and dry), Hutjens recommends having a forage inventory of 30 dry matter pounds per day or 10,950 pounds (5.5 tons) per year.
Those numbers also need to be adjusted for an anticipated five-seven percent shrink along with an additional 30 percent for a replacement heifer, resulting in an annual requirement of seven dry matter tons per animal unit, he indicated.
With corn silage having relatively high moisture, low milk components (butterfat and protein) are a concern, Hutjens pointed out.
While cottonseed is very good for rumen functions, other ingredients such as grain straw might be necessary to provide the scratch factor that aids in digestion, he explained.
Corn stalks might be another candidate but Hutjens prefers to limit their feeding to dry cows, older heifers, and beef cattle.
He mentioned a hand test of a mixed ration to determine if it has a prickly feel or if it creates a friction while rubbing as a good indication to predict adequate digestion.
To boost their forage inventories, some dairy farmers are preparing to harvest a late planting of oats, Hutjens observed.
He urged them to do so quickly - not to wait until it heads - because of the uncertainty of drying rates in late October and early November. He warned that ensiling the oats at too high a moisture content could easily result in the buildup of butryic acid.
For feed quality, forage yield, and soil conservation, Hutjens recommends growing triticale - planted in the fall and harvested in the spring.
He cited likely yields of one-two dry matter tons per acre at the boot stage and three-four tons at the dough stage compared to one-two tons for cereal grains harvested in the fall and one-two tons for each cutting of sorghum/sudan grass.
Hutjens described tricticale as "a poor man's corn" and noted it is a very digestible forage.
Whatever the cereal grain crop, he urged dairy farmers elsewhere to follow the lead of some Illinois dairy farmers who have begun to plant one of those crops in the late summer or early autumn every year.
For those needing to buy feeds, Hutjens listed estimates for 2014, noting that prices are likely to be lower than those in 2013 for corn, corn silage, alfalfa hay, corn gluten feed, and corn distiller's grains but not for cottonseed and soybean meal.
To determine breakeven prices on both the basic and commodity byproduct feeds, Hutjens urges referring to the University of Wisconsin-Extension Service's FeedVal 2012 spreadsheet.
He believes dairy farmers can achieve high milk production in 2014 at a feed cost of 12 cents per dry matter pound - down from 13 cents in 2013, which is only one cent but is a significant percentage change.
At a milk price of $19 per hundred, this would provide income over feed costs of $11.27 per hundred for a herd averaging 80 pounds of milk per cow per day and $10.17 per hundred for a herd average of 70 pounds, Hutjens calculates.
"Can you beat this or not?" is a question dairy farmers and their nutritionists should be asking themselves, he advised.
To achieve those results, Hutjens suggested serious consideration of dairy ration additives such as Rumensin, yeasts, sodium bicarbonate, organic trace minerals such as zinc, selenium, and copper, and Biotin along with using inoculants on silage.