Profit margins could be a challenge in 2022 as feed prices remain high, with premium-quality alfalfa hay over $240 a ton, shelled corn approaching $6 a bushel and soybean meal over $370 a ton.

Hutjens mike
Professor of Animal Sciences Emeritus / University of Illinois – Urbana

One solution is if you have adequate forage amounts and quality. If your forage quality is low, it could be bad news, as you will need to buy missing energy and protein. Weather is an uncontrollable variable due to spring frost, drought, flooding, wildfires and fall frost conditions impacting forage quantity. Forage quality can vary greatly, resulting in a need to aggressively test forages and balance rations.

Forage quality

Four national forage testing labs sent us their 2021 results, which are illustrated in Table 1 (legume forage), Table 2 (corn silage), Table 3 (grasses) and Table 4 (small grains). Compare your forage quality based on the region in which your operation is located.

Legume forage - 0221

Corn silage - 2021

Grass forage - 2021

Small-grain forage - 2021

  • Alfalfa quality was normal (Table 1). Crude protein (CP) levels were 19.9% (West region was highest at 21%), neutral detergent fiber (NDF) averaged 43.3% (West region had the lowest value at 37.8%), and neutral detergent fiber digestibility at 30 hours (NDFD-30) averaged 51.5% (Northeast region was highest at 54.6%). Relative forage quality (RFQ) index averaged 149 (West region had the highest quality at 165). Alfalfa haylage dry matter content at 43.1% should ferment properly with a silage inoculant, resulting in favorable pH and organic acid levels. Guidelines for alfalfa quality are over 20% CP, NDF below 40%, NDFD-30 over 50% and RFQ over 150 for lactating cows.

  • Corn silage has the smallest variation compared to other forages, reflecting more consistent quality. The harvest window is longer, allowing more time to harvest a constant quality forage. Corn silage quality in 2021 was optimal with the following characteristics (Table 2):

o Dry matter averaged 34.5% for optimal fermentation and packing (another lab comparison).

o Starch levels averaged 35.7% (West region was lowest at 30.5%). With expensive corn grain, corn silage starch can save on corn grain purchases.


o NDF was 38.8% (West region was highest at 41.3%).

o NDFD-30 was 57.7% (West region was highest at 59.9%).

o Brown midrib (BMR) hybrid corn silage at 67.7% NDFD-30 compared to a conventional value of 60.6% (another lab comparison), reflecting lower lignin content and improved energy content.

Corn silage guidelines include 32% to 36% dry matter, over 30% starch (good news, as corn silage starch can replace expensive corn grain), NDF levels below 40% and conventional corn silage over 60% NDFD-30.

Growing conditions can impact corn silage quality. If moisture conditions are limiting before pollination, plants may be shorter and higher in NDFD. If moisture is adequate after pollination, starch levels can be increased, but kernels can be hard. Kernel processing with rollers set closer at 1 to 2 millimeters can crush these harder kernels, allowing for improved starch utilization.

  • Grass forages have a wide variation in quality due to maturity, stage at harvest, growing conditions and grass type. Grass quality in Table 3 is normal, with CP level at 15.2% (West region lowest at 13.3%), NDF at 56.5%, NDFD-30 at 60.6% (West region highest at 65.2%) and RFQ at 128. The level of NDF is higher compared to corn silage and alfalfa, which can impact dry matter intake (DMI) but has high NDFD values.

  • Small-grain forage crops are gaining interest as winter cover crops, including wheat, rye and triticale. The quality of winter cover crop forages ranges to high-quality with NDFD-30 similar to corn silage (called poor-person corn silage) if harvested in the boot stage. If harvested in the late dough stage, this forage can be fed to dry cows and older heifers (filler feed). The quality can change in two weeks due to delayed harvest, wet conditions and high heat units. Table 4 lists the regional quality of small-grain forages. CP averaged 13.4%, NDF at 53.5%, NDFD-30 at 63.6%, and RFQ averaged 135 (filler forage). The Northeast region had the highest quality in all measurements. North Dakota extension workers suggest the following:

o Winter rye fits best if pastured in the spring. It has the most aggressive growing pattern of winter cereal grains in spring and lowest seed costs. It uses soil moisture, which can limit the following spring corn silage or full-season crop.

o Winter triticale is a slower-growing forage crop in the spring compared to rye, leading to later maturity by three to five days compared to rye. It is higher in CP and fiber digestibility.

o Winter wheat is the slowest-growing winter annual and lowest in lignin, resulting in more digestible fiber. The grower has two choices, as an early forage crop allowing for corn silage as a double crop or harvest as grain (currently wheat value at over $7 a bushel and straw at $150 a ton) followed with soybeans as a double crop.

Forage quantity

Another forage consideration is if adequate inventory is available on-farm to reach the next harvest period. Determine the tons of forage dry matter needed based on your rations fed to lactating cows, dry cows and replacement heifers. As a guideline, dairy cows consume 28 to 30 pounds of forage dry matter per day. Forage combinations can vary. For example, two-thirds of the forage dry matter may be corn silage and one-third as alfalfa haylage in early lactation cows. Half of the forage dry matter for dry cows may be a filler forage such as straw or lower-quality small-grain forages.

Corn silage starch digestibility increases three to six months after ensiling, which requires additional inventory to allow new-crop corn silage to be delayed and fed in December. Some managers may carry over six months to a year of forage inventory in case of a drought, winterkill or other weather challenges.

If you determine you are short of forage, you should make adjustment now before running out of forage (such as no corn silage in May). Several strategies are outlined below.

  • Cull marginal dairy cows, saving forage inventory.
  • Reduce the number of replacement heifers, also saving forage inventory.
  • Consider purchasing byproduct feeds (such as soyhulls, corn distillers grain, almond hulls or beet pulp depending on local prices). Most of these byproducts may not provide functional fiber.
  • Purchase hay to extend your current forage sources (may be an expensive choice).
  • Explore if local available silage can be purchased. (Transportation costs could be a limiting factor.)
  • Substituting corn grain and soybean meal as a source of nutrients (an expensive alternative).

Forage strategy considerations

1. Calculate your forage inventory and compare to forage needs. Develop a strategy which could include selling excess forage if a market exists.

2. Conduct a fecal starch analysis to determine if your cows are fermenting and digesting ration starch. If fecal starch is over 3%, determine the source of fecal starch. If it is from corn or barley grain, process it finer. If it is from corn silage, next year process the corn kernels more by tightening rollers down to 1 to 2 millimeters.

3. Monitor milk urea nitrogen (MUN) levels to optimize protein efficiency. Target MUN levels between 8 to 12 milligrams per deciliter.

4. If you have a winter-annual cereal grain planted in 2021, determine your strategy in the spring of 2022 (harvest timing, stage of maturity and double crop considerations).

5. Conduct a Penn State Particle Box analysis to evaluate if your ration particle size is optimal for feed intake, rate of passage and fiber digestibility.

6. Check for signs of mycotoxin in forages. Corn silage could be more susceptible due to wet conditions in the late summer and early fall.