Organic Broadcaster

Looming forage crisis requires farmers to take action to survive

By Dan Olson

We are in the middle of a developing forage crisis. While it is definitely acute in 2019, it really started a few years ago when the Dairy market started its decline. While dairy has been operating at or below cost of production, dairy farmers have been forced to operate lean to survive. This, in many cases, has meant consciously reducing feed inventories.

Low inventories put more pressure on every growing season to be a success. But, 2018 was below average for hay production in much of the Midwest. A late spring delayed and hampered yields. Excessive rain to severe drought prevented much of the rest of the country from producing dairy-quality feed the rest of the year. 2019 has opened with nearly zero inventory, widespread winter-damaged hay fields, the latest planting dates we’ve seen in decades, and record number of prevent-plant acres.

Organic farmers are not immune to this crisis and, in some ways, could feel even more pressure. Organic dairy farmers rely on pasture for much of their hay needs through the growing season, but many were forced to graze too early and aggressively because they were out of feed this spring. This will have a very negative effect on pasture productivity the remainder of the summer. Forage inventories in the spring of 2020 will likely be even lower than this year; organic forage could be largely unavailable after the first of the year.

On our grass-based livestock farm in Lena, Wis., we’ve been doing everything we can to ensure we can survive this forage crisis. Here are some tips to help your farm survive as well.

Sell unnecessary animals.
Try not to keep more replacements than you are going to need. Look at improving your milk price by aggressively culling for low components, high somatic cell counts, etc. Find out your true cost of production and possibly cull low producers. At 15+ cents a pound for forage, the cost of production really goes up on high forage diets. If you are under a quota, it will be almost impossible to justify shipping more than your base.

Make every acre count.
This is not the summer to fallow ground. What are your least productive fields? Why are they that way? Whether they need fertility, renovation or a different species, this is the year to get something out of them.

Make every day count.
We are on the clock as far as growing forage in 2019. That means that we need something growing on every acre, every day of the year. If you have small grains for grain, you have the opportunity to grow a lot of forage in the fall. Cool season annuals like forage oats, annual rye grass and brassicas will grow well into the fall and help shorten the winter. By planting warm- and cool-season annuals in sequence we can maximize every day we have.

Build fence.
Whether it’s a fourth crop that isn’t quite worth harvesting or a field of corn stalks, it is amazing how many “animal days” we can get off of fields that we normally wouldn’t consider using as pastures. Electric perimeter fence is cheap and can pay for itself very quickly.

Get creative.
Consider planting a cover-crop in corn fields at last cultivation to graze this winter. Maybe plant a bushel of oats with your cereal rye after silage. The oats will give more yield this fall and the rye will be there next spring to give you some early forage.

Plant annuals vs perennials.
Because they don’t need to over-winter, annuals are inherently more productive than perennials. Instead of summer-seeding a new alfalfa crop consider an annual cocktail mix.

Look past corn.
Everyone gets excited about corn silage yields, but in reality, there are forage species that grow many more pounds of forage than corn silage. Corn silage averages about 45% grain by weight. That means that a field that yields 18 ton silage [at 65% moisture] only had a little over 3 tons of dry matter forage. Crops like sorghum, sorghum-Sudan, and oats or triticale can yield 5-8 tons of forage per year when grown in sequence.

On our farm we are using a combination of BMR sorghum-Sudan, Italian rye grass, and red, berseem and crimson clover. This mix gives us 3 cuttings of very high-quality forage. We are growing a photo-sensitive sorghum-Sudan for dry cow and heifer feed. That is a really low-cost crop to grow and will give us up to 6 tons of forage dry-matter per acre. We either make baleage or chop them.

Consider a lower forage diet.
Historically organic farmers have fed much higher forage diets than their conventional counterparts. This may be a unique year where we should rethink that strategy. There are other sources of digestible fiber like soy-hulls and oats that can be used to stretch forage.

Value high-fiber crops.
If you are buying high-dollar forage, it is important to make every pound count. Good grass has on average twice as much digestible fiber as alfalfa. This means that your cows will increase in feed efficiency and make less manure. This same concept applies to BMR sorghum, BMR Sudangrass, millet and pre-head small grains. Don’t value your forage based on RFV, RFQ or Nel. Instead multiply the NDF by the NDFd30. This number will let you know how much of the forage is digestible fiber. Average alfalfa may be 36% fiber [NDF] and the digestibility of that fiber is only 45% [NDFd30]. That means that the average alfalfa has about 16% digestible fiber. An average grass may have 50% NDF and an NDFd30 in excess of 60%. This means that the percentage of digestible fiber would be over 30%. This number is key when we are trying to maintain performance and reduce intakes.

Use your manure now.
If you have storage or are composting, this may be the year to shorten up that process and get that working for you now. Surface-applied manure can really jumpstart grass hay fields or pastures and annual crops like sorghum-Sudan will respond aggressively to it.

In summary, this will be a challenging 12 months. The sooner we put a plan in place for our farms and execute it, the higher our chances of success will be as we head into 2020.

Dan Olson is the seventh generation running Norsk Farm in Lena, Wis., raising grass-fed beef, lamb, poultry, and hogs. He serves on the board of directors for GrassWorks.

 

From the July | August 2019 Issue

 

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