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Dairy farmers hunt for silage amid drought

Issue Date: August 6, 2014
By Ching Lee
Bob Headrick, who runs a custom harvesting operation in Kings County, walks along a cornfield in Hanford being harvested and chopped for silage.
Photo/Lisa Lieberman
Bob Headrick holds recently harvested silage at a Hanford dairy while a tractor packs the silage pile for easy storage and preservation.
Photo/Lisa Lieberman

With limited water supplies this year and fewer acres of certain field crops being grown, California dairy farmers who depend on forage such as corn silage are paying a higher price and going longer distances to find the feed.

Corn silage is already a major part of a dairy's ration, but this year, dairy farmers are feeding more of it because another fiber source, alfalfa hay, is in even shorter supply, with prices reaching historic highs, said Tyler Colburn, a dairy nutritionist with Alpha Dairy Consulting in Visalia.

"I think that's why you have a lot of people making an extra effort to travel to get extra silage, to reduce their dependence on the hay that they would need to purchase," he said.

Bob Headrick, a silage contractor who runs a custom harvesting operation in Kings County, said his hauls are typically no more than 10 miles from the field to the dairy, but this year he's going twice the distance to move the feed.

Higher demand and reduced plantings in the state have also pushed local corn silage prices up from about $35 per ton to $65 per ton or higher, Headrick said. With these soaring prices, many farmers have decided to harvest their corn for silage rather than grain this year, he added.

The state's total corn acreage was estimated at 520,000 this year, with 110,000 acres expected to be harvested for grain—down 39 percent from 2013—according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Total corn acreage in 2013 was 600,000 and 610,000 in 2012. California corn silage acreage in 2013 was 415,000, compared to 425,000 in 2012, USDA reported.

Because of water shortages, Colburn said dairy farmers who grow all or some of their own feed have had to be more strategic about what they plant on their own ground. He said many of his clients along the Highway 43 stretch between Selma and Bakersfield—a region with tougher soils and hit hard by water restrictions—planted less corn with what water they have or grew more acres of a different feed crop.

He noted that one dairy he works with has cut its corn silage acreage to less than 50 percent and instead grew sorghum, which uses 30 percent less water than corn silage. Sorghum is not an equivalent substitute for corn silage, he said, but with U.S. grain prices falling, dairy farmers have been able to import more corn from the Midwest to make up the nutrient differences.

Headrick said while corn silage yields appear to be very good from what he's seen so far, he noted that harvest season has just begun and will run through October, and it remains unclear how some of the later corn will fare if water runs out early on those fields.

Wiebren Jonkman, who runs a custom harvesting operation in Merced County, said he had to harvest a field early last month because the grower didn't have enough water for the crop's final irrigation. Harvesting early reduces the overall quality and nutrients of the silage, he said, and in some cases, a distressed plant can even be toxic.

Even though forage crops have been scarce this year, Jonkman said he was able to find enough feed for his clients because he started looking last fall for farmers who had the water and were willing to grow it.

Stanislaus County dairy farmer Bryan Kamper, who grows only some of his own feed, said local supplies of corn silage and other forages have been tight in his area. In past years, he was able to find corn silage within seven to eight miles of his dairy in Oakdale, but this year he's going as far as Stockton and the delta area, about 30 miles away.

He said the short supply of corn silage has been made worse by the drought, but availability of feed crops in general has been on the decline because more land has been converted to permanent crops.

Kamper did not grow any corn silage this year but planted a sorghum-sudangrass, which will be harvested later this month and will yield a couple of cuttings. To balance the nutrients in his ration, he's using more rolled corn, dry distiller's grains and almond hulls.

Despite having to change his feed ingredients, Kamper said he has not noticed any impacts to his milk production.

Greg Alves, a diversified farmer and dairy farmer in Glenn County, said since the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District delivered 75 percent of growers' water allocation this year and he bought the remaining 25 percent from other farmers, he expects to be able to grow enough silage to last him through this winter.

Although he normally grows corn for silage and grain, he noted that he and other dairy farmers he knows have decided to chop all their corn for silage this year and buy grain off the market. He also grows wheat silage in the winter and some alfalfa. With alfalfa prices being so high, Alves said the extra silage he's making will allow him to buy less hay.

"You don't know what's going to happen next year, so we've been trying to get enough hay and corn silage in possession, so if we run into an issue next winter, hopefully we can work through the pain," he said.

One fiber source that Colburn said dairy farmers may soon be feeding more of is cottonseed, as cotton prices drop. U.S. cotton farmers are expected to produce a bumper crop this season, and demand from top importers such as China has also retreated, he noted.

Colburn said cottonseed had been a major part of the dairy ration over the last 10 to 15 years, but in more recent years, many dairy farmers pulled it out of their ration because it got too expensive.

With preliminary reports showing another big almond crop on the way, Headrick said the price of almond hulls, another fiber source that's become expensive to feed, may stabilize this fall.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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