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FT. ATKINSON - Dairy farmers got a good look at  what's coming down the pike during the October Hoard's Dairyman webinar.

Forage experts Mike Rankin, managing editor of "Hay & Forage Grower" magazine, and Dr. Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois, reviewed forage and crop yields, pricing, quality and availability during the webinar sponsored by Zinpro Performance Minerals.

Profit margins may be challenging in 2017 and 2018, they concluded, but understanding production and costs can help dairy farmers make the important feed decisions.

Crop picture

The USDA is figuring average U.S. corn yields at 169 bushels per acre and soybeans  at 49 bushels per acre.

As for hay, there was 226,000 more alfalfa/alfalfa grass acres in 2017 than the previous year, but U.S. exports through July were up over 20 percent in 2017.

However, stores remain good.

"We're hearing that more hay is moving than in 2016, but there is still plenty of inventory in most cases," Rankin observed.

Those good inventories, along with winterkill, the end of the California drought and somewhat higher milk prices all figure into the overall price of hay, as does the weather.

The 2017 growing season featured a very wet spring and summer for most regions. That makes three years that the beginning of the growing season has featured wet conditions across many parts of the United States, Rankin said.

 "This was the worst I have ever tried to get hay up in the early season," farmers in New York state told him, citing low-quality harvests and field damage.

"There's lots of lower quality forages available, but premium-plus hay may be hard to come by and it's going to be expensive," Rankin said.

In the West, he observed, California dairies are feeding less alfalfa than ever.  In 2013, Holsteins were chowing down on nine pounds of dry alfalfa a day. That has dropped to seven pounds, he said, which is thought to be a record low.

Corn picture

Corn fields feature "a whole lot of ugly," Rankin said, ticking off nitrogen losses, lower yields and the specter of mycotoxins and molds.

In 2017, there will be plenty of corn silage variation because of drought-stressed corn plants, barren areas, short plants, and plants with no ears because of pollination and drought challenges. In Illinois, Hutjens said, starch levels range from 25-49 percent.

There will be ensiling risks due to processing and length of chop, and poor fermentation due to dry silage and packing problems, he warned.

Hay woes

When it rains, forage cutting is delayed and quality is reduced.

In the windrow, the rain leaches away or chews up the soluble carbohydrates and energy. Microbial activity is unleashed, resulting in increased risk of molds and mycotoxins.

The end result is lower fiber digestibility, more ash and, overall, lower relative forage quality and lower yields. Fermentation is impacted, making inoculations especially beneficial.

"Persistent rain, on first crop or any crop, is just not a good deal," Rankin observed.

Taking in the big picture, he noted very little dairy quality forage was made early, lots of corn was planted late, and wildfires and hurricanes damaged wide swathes of farmland.

 August came in unseasonably cool, but thankfully, September was a saving grace for the Midwest and East,  giving farmers the gift of a terrific stretch of growing weather that virtually made their crops.

Using feed analysis programs

To locate the best buys in feeds, Hujens champions the use of FeedVal 6.0, a computer program that allows a dairy producer to use local prices and select the nutrient values he considers important. The feed analysis program then indicates the values of feed based on other available feeds, listing the feed, the current price and the breakeven price.

For instance, a look at September 2017 FeedVal shows shelled corn with a current Midwest price of $3.37 a bushel and a breakeven price of $5.23/bushel.

"It's a real steal, as far as that goes," Hutjens said.

Corn silage had a current price of $34 a ton and a breakeven price of $52 a ton.

On the other hand, high quality alfalfa was priced at $176/ton, but the breakeven price was back at $146/ton.  In California, Hutjens noted, premium+ hay is costing farmers $30-$40 more per ton than it did in 2016.

Not surprisingly, a poll of the webinar's audience showed almost 70 percent intended to change their feeding program to include more corn silage this coming year.

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