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What’s your forage game plan?

John Goeser for Progressive Forage Grower Published on 01 March 2016
forage game plan

The football season draws to a close with months of preparation, strategy and planning culminating in a championship game.

During the big game, players huddle together and carry out the strategy and plan that has been put in place over the prior months. In similar terms, but during a different season, your big game is forage harvest.

The hay, haylage and silage crop harvested and stored plays a large part in determining farm profitability for the next 12 months or longer. Yet how much planning, aside from seed purchase, fertilization and pest or fungal control, does your forage team commit to?

Experience tells us: not enough. During harvest season, there’s not typically time to slow down and plan. Several different factors usually come together at once, forcing farm teams to make decisions abruptly and possibly without a game plan.

Genetics, weather and equipment generate a perfect storm

Seed genetics and management strategies have rapidly evolved the past five years. Crops grow heartily – and more aggressively in some cases. Scheduling harvest based upon the calendar is not sufficient. In recent years, I have witnessed alfalfa crops maturing to bud stage in as little as 17 days after the last cutting.

Weather patterns seem ever-evolving and volatile. Genetics and management strategies aside, Mother Nature further dictates harvest schedule. In some cases, this can lead to delaying harvest-time windows or more quickly drying the crop than anticipated.

In 2015, many areas of the Midwest and eastern U.S. experienced corn plants drying more quickly than anticipated – ultimately leading to drier corn silage, drier and harder corn grain and poorer crop quality. In the West, drought altered crop growth and performance, forcing growers to consider and evaluate alternative forages.

Beyond genetics, management or weather, additional unforeseen circumstances such as machinery breakdowns or labor shortages can also delay harvest or create havoc during the season.

Planning for performance

In the absence of a sound game plan, unforeseen challenges resulting from any of the above can cause catastrophic outcomes, such as haylage infested with Clostridium spp. or silage contaminated with excessive yeast or mold.

On a positive note, in developing, orchestrating and employing a game plan, your forage quality can improve such that dairy or feedlot performance increases by 5 to 10 percent. Improving forage energy content and fermentation can result in gains of 5 pounds per cow per day or more.

Forewarning: Developing and carrying out the forage harvest game plan isn’t easy. Very few farms successfully develop and put these plans into place. Your team will need to focus and spend time in off-season meetings, developing a plan with action items and accountabilities.

Consider planning using the keys listed below in Part 1 and Part 2 to help your farm gain performance.

Part 1: Key pieces of a sound forage game plan

Meetings take time, but taking the time to get everyone together will save time in the long run and ensure quality at harvest. Set meeting logistics that work for all team members who need to be involved to ensure all sides are heard and considered in developing the written plan.

Work to get all parties committed, and after the first year it will become easier for all involved to see the value in this meeting time priority. Organize two meetings during the off-season.

  • Meeting 1: Organize (January or February)

  • Ensure all key managers and consultants are present.

  • Dairy or feedlot, crop and harvest managers, along with farm and crop consultants.

  • Review prior years’ performance.

  • Graph out forage quality – rely on your consultants for this tool.

  • Review nutrition, crop processing and preservation quality.

  • Discuss individual goals and perceived bottlenecks, then flush out all possible challenges and capture them in writing.

  • Meeting 2: Set the plan (February or March)

  • Review everyone’s individual bottlenecks and goals from the prior meeting.

  • As a team, develop measurable farm goals (see Part 2 for goals to consider).

  • Make decisions on action items and – very important – assign accountability to specific team members:

  • Tillage, fertilization and planting decisions, including seed purchase

  • Monitoring maturity pre-harvest (plan to start this step weeks in advance of the anticipated harvest); this will include walking fields and determining crop maturity by the PEAQ method, scissor-clip method or dry matter analysis.

  • Harvest resources

  • Equipment: Determine availability (e.g., enough pack tractors?), maintenance and processor status

  • Labor: Identify availability and decide upon a reasonable workday (e.g., max 15 hours a day).

  • Preservation products: Determine specifics and volumes of inoculants, acids or preservatives, plastic, etc.

  • Unforeseen circumstance plan: What will be the agreed-upon action in the event of:

  • Rain forecasted

  • Equipment breakdown

  • Labor shortage

Part 2: Forage goals to consider

Outlining goals are a great way to get your forage harvest team motivated to develop and employ the plan at hand. After developing your farm’s goals, be sure to share them with the whole team.

If everyone knows what the farm is shooting for, the team can work in the same direction to gain ground on a harvest that results in an ideal crop. Some goals to consider include:

  • Dry matter (DM) content

  • 32 to 38 percent DM for corn, sorghum silages

  • 38 to 45 percent DM for haylages

  • Nutrient content

  • Neutral detergent fiber (NDF)

  • Less than 40 percent NDF for alfalfa hay or corn silage

  • Less than 50 percent NDF for grass, sorghum or small-grain hay or silages

  • Starch or protein

  • Greater than 18 to 20 percent crude protein for hays and haylage

  • Greater than 35 percent starch for silages

  • Ash

  • Less than 10 percent for hays and haylage

  • Less than 4 percent for silages

  • Yield: Evaluate and set goals with your managers and consulting team

  • Kernel processing: Greater than 70 percent kernel processing score for corn silage

  • Preservation/fermentation

  • pH less than 4.0

  • Greater than 3-to-1 lactic acid-to- acetic acid ratio, unless L. buchneri-inoculated or preserved with acid

  • NH3-N less than 10 percent of crude protein for haylage crops

  • Little butyric acid or ethanol

  • Fermentation shrink less than 2 percent of DM

  • Assess forage dry matter harvested relative to feedout. (This can be difficult.)

  • Shrink can also be benchmarked with a simple forage and fermentation analysis using a recently published equation I developed with colleagues; your consulting team can provide this.

  • Forage density as determined by your consulting team

  • Greater than 45 to 50 pounds per cubic foot

Following these steps will not only help your team prepare for all expected and unexpected contributors to forage harvest but also build confidence and trust in both individual players and the team as a unit.

Knowing that everyone is following the same plan also instills the working-together mantra throughout the team, culminating in “winning the championship” – a successful harvest that garners high-quality forage for the year and reaping rewards for the whole farm.  FG

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

John Goeser
  • John Goeser

  • Director of Nutrition, Research and Innovation
  • Rock River Laboratory Inc.
  • Email John Goeser