In the past year, corn prices have nearly doubled, and there have been major increases in other commodities as well.

Couple that with a shortage of quality alfalfa hay, and it’s understandable that dairy farmers are feeling the pinch trying to feed their herds.

“We expect the higher corn prices to continue,” said Donna Amaral-Phillips, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture dairy nutrition and grazing management specialist.

“The question on dairy farmers’ minds is what they can do to decrease the cost of feeding their herd while not compromising milk production and growth of dairy heifers.”

With the summer coming to an end and fall on the horizon, farmers need to make it a priority to complete the harvest of quality forages.

Amaral-Phillips explained that feeding programs containing higher amounts of forages are generally more profitable for a dairy business, but farmers must harvest and store high-quality forages to take advantage of that.

She said farmers need to harvest corn for silage when the moisture is between 65 and 70 percent or 30 to 35 percent dry matter, depending on the storage structure they use.

Many parts of Kentucky have been dry, which causes corn to dry down quickly.

Lower quality feed

“When farmers harvest corn that is too dry, it doesn’t pack as well in the silo, doesn’t ferment correctly and it results in lower quality feed for the dairy herd,” Amaral-Phillips said.

“Another thing farmers may forget is that improperly covered silages result in excessive losses in the storage structure. These losses are not seen unless the differences between the amounts of silage entering and fed are measured.”

She said farmers need to pack bunkers and piles, especially the top 6 inches of silage, and then cover them with plastic and then tires that touch one another. It’s a good idea to level off and cover uprights. With bags of silage, it is important to prevent birds and rodents from damaging the bags.

“Corn silage is valued at seven to eight times the price of corn grain, plus an additional $10 for harvest and storage,” Amaral-Phillips said. “So, at $7-corn, each ton of corn silage is worth $59 to $66. Corn silage is a very valuable crop this year — taking time to properly cover it will save you feed dollars.”

With current prices, energy is actually the most costly nutrient for farmers to provide their herds — not protein. Energy can cost more than 2.5 times as much as protein in dairy rations.

Amaral-Phillips suggested that dairy farmers work closely with a nutritionist to make the most of their feed dollars. Forage testing can be a big help in balancing diets for milking cows and dry cows and heifers.

Amaral-Phillips offered a few key points to remember when talking with a nutritionist.

“First, dairy cows need nutrients, not ingredients,” she said.

“Nutritionists can use ingredients other than corn grain to provide some or most of the starch in a dairy cow’s diet. This approach allows you to balance rations for least cost but, at the same time, provide the rumen bacteria, and the cow herself, with what she needs.”

She said balanced rations contain certain amounts of dry matter provided by various ingredients. As the dry matter or moisture content of wet feeds changes, the farmer needs to accordingly change the amount they feed or add to the mixer. 

Dairy cows need a consistent ration in nutrient composition on a regular basis. It takes the cow’s rumen bacteria at least two weeks to adjust to changes and the fewer the changes, the better, Amaral-Phillips said.

“We can economically feed the dairy herd, even with high corn prices,” she said. “We just have to pay attention to some of the finer points in our feeding and management programs.”