What a Summer…Forage-ing Ahead

What a strange summer. So far, it's been warm, it's been dry and forages were not growing all that well. Pastures were also suffering as the lack of precipitation delayed and impeded re-growth. In many cases, harvested forages needed to be offered to cows in order to maintain production.

Although not over yet, we can say that it has been a strange summer. In the days to come, taking the time to assess the inventory of forages on hand will help you define the next steps. Having a plan to address issues is always a good way to reduce the level of stress.

If it is felt that the farm's forage inventory may not be adequate this year, sourcing and securing supplemental forages should be the priority of the next few weeks. Taking care of this matter in a timely fashion will not only allow one to benefit from a better choice but will also reduce the amount of stress associated with the uncertainties. Another option to minimize forage shortfall might be to plan for a late season cut to increase forage supplies.

The shorter days ahead will also impact pasture growth. The progressive decline of forage dry matter coming from the pasture will mean that the amount of harvested forages offered to the cows will increase. Furthermore, the concentrate type and amount fed might need to be revised. You may want to discuss this aspect of your feeding program with your nutritionist.

This year, the laboratory testing of forages and other feed will be very important. Because of the potential variability of the crops and the unusual weather patterns, the analysis of your forages might be quite different compared to a 'normal' year. A good habit is to sample forages as soon as possible, throughout the summer so that when the time to use them comes, you will have all the information on hand to make a wise decision.

Once you have the complete picture of the amount and quality of feed available to build the ration, one needs to consider which forages will be offered to each group of animals. Obviously, some forage systems will allow a lot more flexibility when it comes to choosing the right forages. Round bales for example can easily be marked individually with a number that will indicate their field of origin and date of cut. Generally, the best forages available on the dairy farm should be used to prepare the ration for lactating animals. This is true for silage as well as for hay. The best quality forages should be set aside for the cows in early lactation since their nutrient requirements are the greatest. Even if the dairy herd is small, grouping cows according to their milk production and stage of lactation could help optimize the nutrient allocation in the herd. Having a complete analysis of the hay and silage which cows are eating will also help to identify the best protein and energy concentrate to match the requirements of the ration.

A word of caution if your ration includes corn silage: dry weather stressed corn that receives rain shortly before harvest may contain elevated levels of nitrates that can be toxic to ruminants. Although the fermentation process will reduce the amount of nitrates present, the residual levels may still be a problem. For this reason, the silage fermentation should be completed before testing for nitrates.

Although the availability of certified organic feed ingredients can be limited, it could be worthwhile this fall to identify and source ingredients that could be used to stretch forage and fibre levels in the ration. Of course, when formulating the dairy ration, we need to keep in mind that the Canadian Organic Standards state that a minimum of 25% of the forage portion must be in the form of dry hay and no more than 40% of the ration's dry matter should come from concentrates.

For more information:
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E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca