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Pricing and using alternative forages on your farm

Jim Paulson, Dairy Extension Educator

September 13, 2014

The 2014 corn silage harvest will soon begin, which will represent the harvest and storage of a farm's major forage source for the next twelve months. If you could be short of forage this year due to late planting or prevented planting, some alternative forage supplies may be of benefit to your farming operation. Livestock farms should have a plan to insure a supply of forages for the fall of 2014 through the fall of 2015. A good accurate inventory now would be a good starting point in planning out your needs for the feeding year. The next step is to build a feed and forage needs budget to estimate feed needs for your farm. Once you have a reasonable feed needs budget estimate then you can calculate any additional needs to quickly identify and secure potential sources of forage or feed alternatives that would work for your farm's livestock needs. For dairy, allocate your highest quality forage for the milking herd and youngest heifers. For beef cows, you may choose to save some for calving time.

With the reduction in corn grain prices, some farms may find the opportunity to purchase some late planted corn to add to the supply of corn silage that they grew. Fields of late planted corn may be something that livestock farms can purchase from crop producers who are looking to reduce risk if these fields do not mature before this year's killing frost. In some cases, farms may have planted beyond the crop insurance planting date requirements leaving these fields exposed to a huge risk. How to price that crop is always a question that needs to be answered before harvest begins.

One way is to price the forage based on a forage test post-harvest and with the known amount of forage harvested. There are a number of ways to closely estimate the amount of silage. Silos and bags are easier to calculate than a pile but each can be done. It is probably easier to determine wet tons of silage using 65% moisture as the starting point and adjust from there. It is also best to put a minimum price floor to cover the value of fertility and organic matter if using a post-harvest test. Who does the harvesting is another factor. I would estimate about $100 per acre harvest costs whether it is harvested as silage or grain. If we account for the value of corn grain per ton of silage, the average corn silage has 7 to 8 bushels of corn per wet ton of silage. If the corn was planted late, it could be lower. The value of the fodder is usually based on some alternative forage such as straw or stover. But that may not be the best comparison because the corn plant is much more digestible if harvested at 65% moisture than is dry straw or stover. Comparing that portion to high quality grass forage would be a better estimate of forage value and a better pricing guide. There are several spreadsheets available to help calculate values. Go to our University of Minnesota Dairy Extension website for more help.

Sweet corn silage (cannery waste) can be a low cost forage available in certain areas of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. As you can see from the table below, it compares favorably in feeding value with regular corn silage. It will be lower in starch, as many of these other forages can be. With all of these alternative forages, it is a good investment to get digestibility rates and estimates for NDF and undigestible NDF. We can potentially overestimate energy content of forage if the NDF of the forage digests slower or less than we estimate.

Corn silage Sweet corn silage Small grain forage BMR sorghum/sudan Corn stover
Item --------------------%--------------------
CP 8.5 9 16 14 5
NDF 45 55 50 55 65
TDN 70 67 65 70 45

Some emergency crops such as oats and turnips or oats and peas may have been planted or could be yet on some fallow ground for a fall harvest. Another alternative could be some cover crops that were planted on prevented plant acres and could be available for harvest after the first of November. While these alternatives can be very risky to rely on, the forage value as either harvested or grazed forage can be relatively high. Pricing these forages is difficult. They will usually be priced based on alfalfa haylage as a starting point and also compared to small grain silages. In many cases, depending on maturity, they will compare favorably with either forage. Again, forage tests and estimated yields are critical. For many of these different types of cover crops and alternative forages, a wet chemistry forage test will need to be done to obtain a more accurate nutrient analysis.

If you have any questions at all, don't hesitate to contact a Dairy Extension Team member to assist you.

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