Timely Harvest, Proper Storage Keys to Good Feed

4/6/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

NORTHUMBERLAND, N.Y. — In today’s challenging economy, dairy farmers have to take every step possible in an attempt to remain profitable.

Good feed storage practices can improve nutritional quality, resulting in higher milk production, which is every farmer’s goal.

A handful of dairymen gathered March 28 at Welcome Stock Farm where Cornell Cooperative Extension led a workshop, “Putting Your Feed Program to Work.” Discussions covered a variety of topics, including forage quality, managing feed inventories, delivering feed to cows and harvesting strategies.

“How do you decide when to do that first cutting of hay?” said David R. Balbian, an Extension dairy management specialist. “Every year’s a little bit different. We’re already different from last year.”

This spring’s cool weather, compared to an unseasonably warm March in 2012, might make for a later first cutting. Regardless, timing is extremely important to maximize hay’s nutrient content.

“It’s all based on the requirements for lactating cows,” Balbian said. “For dry cows or horses the quality doesn’t have to be quite as good.”

Welcome Stock Farm, with 550 milk cows (1,200 total animals) is owned by Bill Peck and his sons, Willard and Neil. It’s one of six sites where Cooperative Extension presented feed programs in March for farmers in upstate New York.

Rawson Gamage, of Renaissance Nutrition, is Welcome Stock’s dairy herd nutritionist and handles similar duties for several other farms in and around Saratoga County. For each client, by improving the herd’s diet he tries to maximize each cow’s production as economically as possible.

Each of Welcome Stock’s cows, which are milked three times per day, produce an average 90 pounds of milk daily or more than 46,000 pounds total.

Adjusting diet can boost output up to five pounds per cow, which can mean the difference between profitability and loss, Gamage said.

“These days profit margins are so thin that you can’t just wing it,” he said. “You have to try to do everything right.”

One of the first things he does at each farm is test its silage for energy, mineral, vitamin and protein content. If such things are lacking, cows are fed supplements such as cottonseed, citrus and corn meal as needed.

“If you get that diet just right they make more milk and are healthier,” Gamage said.

Feed is typically a farm’s single greatest expense, whether it’s purchased or raised on site. Last year’s U.S. drought drove grain prices up, putting a financial squeeze on many farm operations.

The workshop gave dairymen tips on how to compensate for such conditions.

Obviously, weather is a big factor.

“It’s a matter of getting timely rains through the course of the growing season, and growing degree days,” Gamage said.

However, Balbian stressed the importance of harvesting hay at the correct moisture and maturity levels, and proper storage once it’s cut. Silage should be tightly packed and sealed with a good cover to minimize oxygen and moisture, he said.

“We usually like to be drier than normal when we harvest our haylage,” Neil Peck said.

Balbian added, “Air or oxygen is to silage what kryptonite is to Superman. You’ve got to get it out of there. In normal fermentation you’re going to lose some of the goodies (energy) you want cows to have. You can use inoculants, but they aren’t a substitute for good practices.”

Hay raised in cooler, drier conditions improves digestibility, he said.

“Cows in the Southeast and Florida (where it’s humid) have a tough time making milk,” he said. “Farms there feed as little forage as they can because the quality is so poor.”

Balbian recalled “old-timers” telling him how their cows’ milk production went up during dry years.

“I remember them saying how their cows really milked on that feed,” he said. “The only problem is there isn’t enough of it (during dry years). But some of these rules of thumb that old-timers believed, we now understand.”

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