Forage Outlook and Strategies for Fall 2012

Forage Shortage on Many Minds

With the unusual nature of spring 2012, the continued decline in forage acreage, and current dry conditions in parts of the Province, there are already reports (as of mid-June) that hay prices are extremely high at present, and that this may foreshadow the hay and forage market for Fall of 2012. Finding a successful stored forage strategy will depend on a few things:

  • Factors that will impact short-term forage supply and demand
  • Management ideas for hay-based cow herds
  • Alternative strategies for feedlots and other TMR-fed beef operations
  • Longer-term forage outlook

Factors in a Potential Forage Shortage

The story of 2012 Ontario forage supplies is still very uncertain, and will continue to be until 2nd and maybe even 3rd cut hay and haylage is put into storage. Until that time, we will not really know the extent to which a supply crunch will or will not occur due to the dry conditions and the continued decline in Ontario forage acres, as depicted in Figure 1. Census data indicates that forage acres in Ontario continue to decline, a situation related to the appeal of commodity cash crops. One factor which may affect the demand side is the potential that the horse sector may shrink, as indicated by the intentions of many horse breeders to reduce their holdings and breedings. This would cause a loss in the associated hay demand. So, although the initial perspective that total yield will be down due to changeover of forage acres to cash crop, causing higher forage prices, the effect of equine demand change may moderate it.

Graph  showing area of field crops in Ontario by year

Text Equivalent of Figure 1

Graph showing the cost breakpoint for corn hay substittution

Text Equivalent of Figure 2

Cow Herd Wintering Strategies

In the event of a stored forage shortage, here are a number of strategies that could be implemented to substitute or stretch forage resources:

  1. Substitute other straws, stovers and residues for hay. Table 1 ranks some common alternative forages for a number of nutrients, including digestibility and crude protein levels. The extent to which this substitution can be used is a function of the straw quality and the cow's age of production.
  2. Institute limit feeing. Several sources suggest that limit feeding can reduce wastage, and reduce luxury consumption of feed without affecting performance. This is because the cow herself is a natural buffer who can increase or decrease resource usage by altering body fat stores, liver wastage and waste heat production.
  3. Implement ionophore use. Including ionophores at higher levels that used as a coccidiostat can reduce feed usage as well. By making rumen fermentation more efficient, the cow can harvest more feed energy as metabolites for her system, rather than have that feed energy blown off as methane.
  4. Reduced hay rations + commodities. By using commodities to offset hay, hay can be saved. There are a number of ways this can be done using limit feeding, in a TMR, or just to offset a poor quality residue feed like straw. Each of these approaches is based on the concept that commodities are concentrate feeds and can replace more nutrients per unit weight than hay. For example, corn can replace up to twice the amount of hay per unit weight, as shown in Figure 2. Based on an approximate 2 to 1 replacement of hay with corn, a reduced hay ration can be fed to cows, provided some forage remains in the ration. The graph in Figure 2 gives some guidelines for decision making based on various price levels of hay vs. corn.
  5. Use corn silage. One interesting development in recent years is that corn silage has actually become cheaper than hay in many areas. In this case, corn silage could be maximized in the ration, and then this ration would use low quality forages to bulk them, a protein supplement to address the protein shortfall, and then all of this delivered on a limit-fed basis.

Table 1 gives nutrient parameters for common forages and some other feeds, on a dry matter basis. The term eNDF (effective neutral detergent fibre) is a measure of how well a feed stimulates rumination. Paying attention to the percent of total NDF which is made up of eNDF may become important to the beef sector (as it has in the dairy sector), as alternative forage sources are investigated.

Table 1. Nutrient content of various feeds*

% CP
% eNDF
Alfalfa Hay - early bloom
Alfalfa Silage - early bloom
Orchardgrass Hay - early bloom
Orchardgrass Hay - late bloom
Corn Silage - 45% grain
High Moisture Corn1
Corn and Cob Meal1
Corn Stalklage
Wheat Silage - dough
Wheat Straw
Barley Straw
Soybean Straw1

* From Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle, 7th Revised Edition 1996, Appendix Table 1A, except those denoted as 1 which are from the Nutrient Requirements of Small Ruminants, 2007, Table 15-11.

Feedlot Strategies

Many feedlot rations use processed hay in rations to ensure rumen health, providing the "scratch factor". To replace that functionality, the following (many of which will seem a lot like the cow list) should be considered:

  1. Substitute other straws, stovers and residues for hay. Again, see Table 1 for forage information, and perhaps this time consider the effective fibre the way a dairy producer might. Again, the extent to which this can be done is a function of the straw quality, and the stage of finishing.
  2. Switch from HMC to cob meal. As seen in Table 1, the effective fibre contribution of cob meal to rumen function and health is much greater than for regular high moisture corn.
  3. Use corn silage. Again, in many places corn silage may actually be the cheapest forage. If 5% hay is used in the ration (or about 1 lb. per head per day), another way to achieve similar effective fibre is using long chop processing with corn silage at 2 times or more the hay inclusion rate. By long chop and processed, we mean using corn silage the way our dairy counterparts do, to improve rumen function. Worried about too much corn silage? There is a good body of research by Phil McEwen at Ridgetown College's that shows corn silage levels of up to 50% of ration dry matter don't negatively affect performance, and often improve ration cost-effectiveness.
  4. Institute limit feeding. Using this concept - also referred to as slick bunk management or target feeding - reduces luxury consumption in the finishing animal as well. The liver and gut tissues waste large amounts of energy, so feeding at 90 to 95% of ad lib (free choice) intake with slightly higher protein levels results in the same performance by making these organs run a little 'leaner'. So if hay is 5 or 10% of the ration, if we reduce intake by 10% we can reduce total hay usage by 10 percent as well.

Long Term Outlook

Forage shortages are not unique to Ontario. Other parts of the globe have been driven to alternative forage strategies for all sorts of reasons, including the rising cost of irrigation. That means our worldwide understanding of using alternative fibre sources in everything from beef to dairy rations is improving. So, even if hay remains expensive we will find ways to adapt. So, don't despair about the industry's future with the short-term rise in hay prices; either the market place will change or the industry's outlook on fibre will!


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