Feeding corn stalks on dairy farms: Dry cows and bred heifers

Dry dairy cows and heifers can be fed corn stalks as a cost effective forage source. Corn stalks are cost effective forage that can be used sparingly in lactation rations. Use caution not to overfeed resulting in reduced intake and reduced milk production.

Forage supplies are low and costs are high. Dairy producers are looking for affordable forage options to include in their rations. Using Feedval 2012 to compare feedstuffs, corn stalks are a cost competitive forage source. Feedval 2012 is a feed pricing spreadsheet that can be found online, through the Dairy Cattle Nutrition, University of Wisconsin Extension site.

General recommendations are to feed corn stalks to dry cows and heifers up to 33 percent of the forage content. Dry cow and bred heifer rations should be formulated contain no more than 20 percent of the forage as they approach calving within two to four weeks.

Research conducted at South Dakota State University compared two groups of dairy heifers, one group fed a traditional diet, while the other group was fed a diet of corn stalks and wet distiller’s grains. Gains were greater for heifers fed traditional diet 2.82 pound/day vs. 2.31 pound/day ADG. While gains of heifers fed stalks and distiller grains were lower than the traditional diet, gains were greater than National Research Council dairy recommendations. The conclusion of the study was that the heifers supplemented with cornstalks performed at acceptable levels, while decreasing ration cost by 40 percent.

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) is an important management tool used by dairy farms to ensure that cows possess proper fat reserves. BCS should be used to evaluate the success of rations in preparing dry cows and heifers for parturition. If cows are not gaining sufficient condition and body weight to enter lactation, rations should be reevaluated and reducing corn stalk inclusion rate considered.

Corn stalks have a similar nutrient content to straw. Dairy producers who have already inventoried straw for dairy rations may not want to add cornstalks into their rations. The nutrient content range can be very large depending on the percentage of stalk, leaf, husk, cob and grain content.

Harvesting of corn stalks has been conducted in an assortment of methods. Grazing is the most cost effective harvesting method. Baling is the most common mechanical system. Each mechanical harvest system will change the proportion of stalk to leaf to husk ratio. This ratio will have a great effect on the nutritive value of the feedstuff. Because nutritive value of corn stalks can be so variable due to multiple factors, sampling and testing is critical for proper ration formulation.

Producers using total mixed ration feeding systems will need to grind bales to incorporate them into the ration. Producers feeding bales will be required to evaluate the level of waste that is acceptable. Cattle will sort through large bales to find the most palatable feed including ears of corn, husks and leaves before eating a significant amount of stalk. The stalk is the least nutritious portion of the feedstuff. Allowing some level of waste will increase the nutritive value of cornstalks over a representative feed analysis, as animals will be consuming the most nutritious portion of the bale.

Dry cows and heifers can be cost effectively fed rations including corn stalks. Care must be taken to ensure that inclusion rates are not too high that animal performance is negatively impacted. For more information about feeding of corn stalks to dry dairy cows and heifers, contact Frank Wardynski, Ruminant Educator with Michigan State University Extension.

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