Shifts in Forage Production
It is interesting to note that the top 10 forage production states in 2013 (WI, CA, NY, TX, PA, MN, ID, IA, MI, SD) also represent 8 of the top 10 dairy production states (CA, WI, ID, NY, PA, TX, MN, MI, NM, WA) (Progressive Dairyman, 2014). Forage production in the United States has increased dramatically over the past century (Figure 1) with the major trend of reduced alfalfa production and increased corn silage production. The benefits of high dry matter yields, high starch, consistent fiber digestibility, a single harvest time and the ability to utilize manure has driven higher corn silage inclusion rates responsible for the current corn silage trend.
Figure 1. US Forage Dry Matter Production 1919-2013 (Newell, 2014)
The current alfalfa trend started in the 1990‘s, partly due to the corn silage shift, and accelerated downward due to increased corn acres for ethanol production under the Renewable Fuels Standard Western Dairy Management Conference created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Alfalfa production was also affected by the broad regional droughts in 2011 and 2012 which led to declining hay production and shortages that drove up hay prices and increased hauling distances for hay. In response, acres devoted to alfalfa increased in some Western states where corn is less prevalent, but not enough to offset the overall loss of alfalfa acres. The Upper Midwest remained in alfalfa deficit through 2013 due to winter damage and stand loss. 2013 alfalfa production was below trend, and hay market prices continue to remain somewhat elevated. The increase in availability of distillers grains as a mid-protein source replacing alfalfa-protein is also a key factor in alfalfa production and utilization trends. There may be a rebound in alfalfa seedings over the next few years if competing crop prices decline or alfalfa prices stay relatively elevated but total acres could remain stagnant, because average stand age has grown excessively long in some regions where producers delayed new seedings in favor of grain crops. If a higher stand replacement rate unfolds, a younger average stand age could help support a production rebound (Newell, 2014).
Other hay in NASS reports includes warm-season grasses like bahiagrass, bermudagrass, sudangrass and teff, several species of clovers and other legumes, and cool season grasses of many species. Hay species in this large category are often grown for their adaptability in geographies not suitable for row crops and as such, their acres should continue providing substantial hay production (Newell, 2014).
Sorghum and sorghum-sudangrass silages are often more successful than corn under heat and drought stress where rainfall and/or irrigation is limited. Their use is relatively minor from a broad US perspective, but can be locally important, particularly in the semi-arid plains and in the southwest (Newell, 2014).
As concluding "food for thought", listed below are field comments the author has solicited from DuPont Pioneer colleagues and interactions with consulting nutritionists when they were asked about the important forage-related areas dairy producers should keep in mind:
1) reduce fermentation and feed-out losses as a way to improve water utilization,
2) have someone in the operation who makes a priority of managing the agronomics and harvesting of forage crops,
3) optimize locally grown energy sources – anchor the diet with corn silage and reasonable levels of alfalfa,
4) consider all factors if switching from corn to sorghum due to water limitations - shorter maturity hybrids planted at lower populations may provide more energy per acre than sorghum,
5) focus on ration consistency and reducing variation in forage inventories,
6) be mindful of the huge varietal differences in sorghums and decide at what production level sorghum in the diet makes economic sense,
7) focus on economics of growing versus purchasing forages,
8) establish legal contracts for purchased forages with clear incentives around quality parameters (starch, kernel processing),
9) investigate ways to feed cows with less alfalfa by using alternative forage sources,
10) look closely at new silage technologies to improve forage feeding such as enzyme-producing inoculants, oxygen-barrier film, facers, rumination monitors and on-farm NIRS,
11) remember that forage quality cannot drive economical production without consistency and cow comfort,
12) consult with trusted academic and industry specialists to help separate "fact from fiction" when it comes to new forage technologies,
13) utilize new forage analysis methods to proactively predict the associative effects of combining various forage and supplements into a lactating diet and
14) keep abreast of agronomic advances allowing for prediction of yield, quality and harvest timing of forages as the growing season advances.
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Presented at the 2015 Western Dairy Management Conference, Reno, NV.