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Addressing low forage inventory and feed quality challenges

Cathy Bandyk for Progressive Dairy Published on 26 December 2019

Successful implementation of feeding programs on the dairy hinges on accurate assessment and effective management of forages in the diet. As we wrap up a year notable for the extent of weather challenges experienced throughout the growing and harvesting seasons, this focus on forages becomes even more critical.

Many dairies are already dealing with restricted forage inventories and low or questionable forage quality. Faced with limited and likely expensive hay and silage supplies, managers must take a hard look at their feeding options. While there is no single “best” response to the situation, opportunities may exist to take advantage of alternative roughage feeds, reduce overall forage requirements or better utilize what is being fed.



But before considering any major changes in feeding programs, producers need to answer some key questions.

First, get a realistic picture of where you stand. Take the time to make an accurate assessment of current and potential hay and silage inventory, considering nutritional value as well as total amount. Feed testing is essential to understanding how far these feeds can go towards meeting herd nutrient needs. And because the conditions that hindered forage production and harvest can also set the stage for production of mycotoxins and other toxic metabolites in forage crops and silage, testing for these may also be called for.

Recent advances in Near Infrared Spectrometry (NIR) technology have created opportunities for real-time forage evaluation. While precision and accuracy can vary between machines and software, some producers have found significant value using on-farm readers calibrated and set for the feedstuffs and characteristics relevant to their operation. This information, when used to make adjustments at the mixer, can facilitate better utilization of variable or atypical forage inventory.

It can also be worthwhile to step back and honestly assess current forage management practices and their impact on feed waste. Visit with your nutritionist about the feasibility of reducing forage levels in different rations.

Consider alternatives

When existing forage supplies or normal market channels simply can’t meet the need, it may be time to think outside the box.


While it naturally depends on what is available locally, there may be opportunity to partially replace traditional sources of hay or silage from other sources. Consider alternative roughages such as crop residues. If grazing is part of your program, prevented plant acreage cover crops, annual cultivated forage crops or frozen alfalfa may be viable options for certain parts of the country. Look beyond your property lines, and see if neighbors have resources they may not be using themselves.

Reduce overall forage needs

The demand side of the equation may offer opportunities for preventive management in the face of forage shortfalls, as well. Simply put, can we feed fewer mouths and feed less forage per mouth?

For dairies raising their own heifers, this may be one area to consider. Most operations typically hold back significantly more females than they normally need. If forage supply is tight enough, or the cost high enough, it might make sense this year to reduce that number.

For animals remaining in the herd, now may be the time to consult with your nutritionist to evaluate options for reducing forage level in your diets. Use of other fiber sources, such as soyhulls and other co-products, is one approach.

Anything that lowers animal requirements holds extra value when feed supplies are tight. That includes keeping animals healthy with sound preventive practices, maximizing cow comfort, and minimizing stress.

Get the most from what you have

Every step from harvesting to feeding hay or silage can impact the amount and quality of feed available for animals to use. When forage is at a premium, choices involving storage and feeding methods take on heightened significance.


Poor management of the silage bunk face can lead to dry matter losses as great as 10%. Practices that minimize exposure to oxygen are key to keeping this potential waste in line. Keeping the face smooth and perpendicular has been shown to reduce the surface area exposed by up to 9% – while also reducing avalanche risk. It is also important to minimize the amount of time loose silage sits waiting to be added to the mixer. Only remove the cover as needed, and keep air out of the edges and seams. Make a point of moving spoiled feed away from the bunker for disposal.

In the case of dry forages, don’t miss the obvious: Many operations could see significant feed savings if they adopted recognized practices that minimize hay losses. Sometimes we don’t actually stop to think exactly what waste does to our total hay usage.

For replacement heifers or other animals that may typically have free-choice access to hay, we can look to research that has highlighted ways to minimize hay losses in beef operations. These highlight some simple things that can make a big difference. Store bales to maximize drainage and air flow around them. Feed less, more often. And always feed bales in properly designed feeders, in well-drained areas.

Today’s producers also have access to a range of proven feed ingredients that can optimize forage utilization. As these products improve rumen conditions and activity, or enhance natural digestion processes, fibrous feeds yield more nutrients from each bite or pound consumed. These benefits are of greatest value when forage supplies are restricted or expensive.

Compounds derived from specific fermentation products can be particularly effective. When pre-applied to feed or delivered directly to the animal, research shows they can have both direct and indirect activity on feed breakdown and digestibility.

More specifically, these bioactives start to open up the surface of feedstuffs they come in contact with, creating more adhesion sites for the microbes to begin their activity. It has been shown they also positively modify the rumen microbial population and increase the overall hydrolytic capacity of the rumen.

In a recent trial involving lactating dairy cows at the University of Saskatchewan, a commercial Trichoderma reesei fermentation product significantly increased dry matter digestibility from 68.4% to 70.8%, and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) digestibility from 47.3% to 53.4% (Figure 1). This may be of particular value when forages with lower-than-normal quality are in the ration. 

122419 bandyk fig1Live yeast probiotics also exert positive influences on fiber utilization. Multiple research trials have shown significant increases in digestion of dietary fiber, with associated improvements in performance. Likely modes of action include feeding and stimulating desirable species of bacteria, scavenging unwanted oxygen, moderating rumen pH and possibly supporting better health and overall immune function.

Limited quantity and quality of available forage will be a reality across much of the U.S. this year. Plan ahead to identify management options that minimize the practical and economic impact of these challenges on your operation.  end mark

Cathy Bandyk
  • Cathy Bandyk

  • Ruminant Technical Manager
  • AB Vista