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With fall harvest down, dairy farmers find ways to feed cattle

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Because the drought is expected to reduce fall harvest corn and hay yields in Jefferson County by 10 to 20 percent, most dairy farmers will be forced to buy more forage to feed their cattle or downsize their herds by selling more to slaughterhouses, observers say.

Healthy rainfall in August may have helped save some crops, but the fall harvest is markedly down, said dairy farmer Lyle J. Wood, who co-owns a farm in Cape Vincent with Scott F. Bourcy. Because Mr. Wood planted 250 additional acres of corn and 300 acres of hay in the spring, he should have just enough forage to keep his herd of 700 cattle healthy until next spring, he said. In the next two weeks, the farm will harvest 700 acres for corn silage and 500 acres for grain.

“We’re getting 18 tons to the acre when we normally get about 22,” Mr. Bourcy said after harvesting a field last week. “To get more feed we’re also going to cut a 400-acre hay field that we would have normally cut in the spring.”

Mr. Wood added that if he hadn’t planted more acreage this season, he would have been compelled to sell more cattle than usual.

Farmers throughout Jefferson County already are making plans to sell more of their cull cattle — those with defects or who produce low amounts of milk — than they ordinarily do, said Arthur F. Baderman, agricultural outreach coordinator for Jefferson County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension office. He said farmers should make realistic expectations about how much forage they expect to harvest and should start selling more cattle if their herds are too large.

“If you can’t feed them, then you better get rid of the poor-producing cows now instead of waiting for the winter,” he said, “because the cattle will be eating forages you can’t replace. Having the forage available for the rest of the herd is more important.”

The risk of keeping cattle too long could be costly for farmers, Mr. Baderman said, because if they aren’t eating enough feed in the fall and winter months, they’ll lose weight and sell for a lower price per pound at slaughterhouses. Some farmers who are reluctant to sell more cattle now could lose important profits needed for cash flow.

“Some farmers have the mentality that they’re going to get as much milk as they can out of their cattle, but economics say you should sell when they’re still in good body condition,” Mr. Baderman said.

Along with trimming their herds, many farmers with forage deficits will need to buy corn silage and hay at today’s high prices.

Finding standing corn and hay crops in the region can be a challenge, however, because most farmers don’t have any left to spare. Mr. Baderman said that at least 70 percent of the farmers he’s spoken with in the past two weeks have told him that they probably won’t harvest enough forage to feed their cattle.

“Forages are 10 to 20 percent less per acre than normal, and most farmers don’t have any inventory from last fall that’s left,” he said. “They’re going to have to make that up, but right now there is very little forage to buy in the area.”

Some farmers, for example, may elect to buy grain for their cattle from commodity brokers in the Midwest to supplement their forage, Mr. Baderman said. To produce the most milk, cattle need a diet of 60 percent to 70 percent corn silage and 30 percent to 40 percent grain. Farmers who do not buy silage, grain and hay this fall because of high prices can expect below-average milk production as a result. Healthy cows produce some 70 to 90 pounds a day, while cows with poor diets may yield less than 50 pounds.

“If a farmer stays short on crop and corn silage, they will barely produce enough milk to pay their bills,” Mr. Baderman said. “Some farmers that don’t have a lot of machinery or debt, though, won’t harvest grain to keep their costs down.”

Some farmers with low annual cash flow are reluctant to pay high prices for cattle feed right now, said Michael B. Kiechle, president of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau, who owns a 400-acre dairy farm with 120 head of cattle in the town of Philadelphia. But if they wait, prices could be much higher in the winter.

“You have to pay cash when the feed arrives, and most farmers don’t have the cash or credit line for that,” he said. “But they have to have enough haylage or forage on hand to get to the next harvest date in the spring.”

Normally, Mr. Kiechle said, he harvests a 14- to 18-month supply of forage in the fall. He expects to harvest only about a year’s worth this season because of yield losses but doesn’t plan to sell more cull cattle than usual.

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