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Double-cropping corn-silage acres with a small grain is a strategy for providing additional forage. It also can be used for maintaining cover on fields, reducing sediment and nutrient loss. Recently some consultants have focused on producing small-grain silage that mimics alfalfa, especially for protein.

Optimizing fertilization should increase both forage quality and quantity. But if small-grain silage doesn’t meet the “alfalfa-quality" standard it’s considered a failure and not milk-cow worthy. Successfully incorporating small-grain silage into milk-cow rations isn’t dependent only on fiber and protein content.

Two farms recently worked with the Pennsylvania State University-Extension to provide details on financials, feeding programs and cropping strategies. Both herds are well-managed. Their annual rations consist of corn silage and small-grain silage as their only forage source for the lactating herd.

The herd with the greatest profitability has achieved profit for the past three years. The herd with medium profitability has achieved profit for only one year. About 50 percent of each farm’s acreage is double-cropped. Both operations have opportunities for improvement, but recommendations will be different.

The opportunity for the herd with the greatest profitability lies in the cropping program. An action plan could be developed to improve both forage quality and quantity.  The three-year average yield represents two wet years and one drought year. The farm with the greatest profitability has red-shale and clay-loam soils that are susceptible to compromised yields during drought. Forage quality is average. Many nutritionists would consider the ryelage of poor quality and unacceptable milk-cow feed. The farm relies on purchased feed to compensate for limitations related to forage quality and quantity. The farm’s strength is excellent cow management and achieving performance from animals to generate income that balances with expenses.

Opportunity for the herd with medium profitability involves feeding and cow management. Forage quality and quantity is very good and not a limiting factor. An action plan is needed to address bottlenecks to total-mixed-ration consistency, first-calf-heifer performance and metabolic problems. Facilities and labor are an added problem affecting feeding management and animal performance. The operation has a strong foundation with the forages. Slight adjustments in feeding practices would enable the farm to achieve greater milk income and potentially improved cash flow.

Every dairy operation is unique; standard recommendations related to cropping, feeding and financial strategies usually don’t work. Double-cropping isn’t for everyone. But there are many operations successfully using the strategy. Small-grain silage doesn’t need to mimic alfalfa to generate milk production and profitability. There’s always room for improvement whether it’s addressing forage quality and quantity, or feeding and cow management.

Determining strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – SWOT – is a valid approach to finding easy solutions first and then moving toward more-challenging bottlenecks. There are many viable dairies despite the poor market conditions of the past five years. In many instances a slight “nudge” in a management practice could make all the difference to achieving positive cash flow. Analyzing an entire farm system is a valid approach to determine whether double cropping is a correct strategy.

Small-grain silage viability considered

Goal – Complete a cash-flow plan including the entire farm, dairy and cropping enterprises.

Step 1. Using Pennsylvania State University-Extension’s Excel spreadsheet, complete a year-end analysis on both a cash and accrual basis.

Step 2: Record amounts fed of all home-raised and purchased feeds for all animal groups. Incorporate rations that include small-grain silage as a comparison.

Step 3: Develop a cropping enterprise – including all home-raised feeds, yields, direct expenses and overheads. Decide on the number of acres to be double-cropped and the expected tonnage needed to feed various animal groups. Use that to compare against the current program.

Step 4: Evaluate the impact of incorporating double-cropping into the entire farm system compared to the current cropping and feeding program.

Step 5: Work with appropriate consultants to discuss bottlenecks to implementation.

Monitoring must include an economic component to determine whether a management strategy is working. For lactating cows income-over-feed cost is a good way to check that feed costs are in-line for the level of milk production. Starting with July 2014’s milk price income-over-feed cost was calculated using average intake and production for the past six years from the Penn State dairy herd. The ration contained 63 percent forage consisting of corn silage, haylage and hay. The concentrate portion contained corn grain, candy meal, sugar, canola meal, roasted soybeans, Optigen and a mineral-vitamin mix. All-market prices were used.

Also included are the feed costs for dry cows, springing heifers, pregnant heifers and growing heifers. The rations reflect what has been fed to the animal groups at the Penn State dairy herd. All-market prices were used.

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Virginia Ishler is a dairy specialist at the Pennsylvania State University-Extension.