Most people that consume dairy never really think about everything that goes into producing milk – least of all what cows eat to produce that milk in the first place!
On the other hand, dairy farmers are almost obsessive over what their cows are eating on a regular basis. Not only do they want to be sure that their cows are healthy and happy, but they want to be sure that every penny they put into food is going to see a return on their investment in the form of high-quality dairy.
Though dairy cows eat all different kinds of things, the overwhelming majority of their food sources can be broken down into two distinct groups: hay and silage.
What is Hay?
Hay is a specific type of grass or other herbaceous plants grown specifically to be used as food for animals, most often livestock, cattle, horses, and sheep. It’s not all that uncommon for hay to be given to rabbits or guinea pigs, either.
What is Silage?
Silage is very similar to traditional field hay, with one main difference – it’s been “pickled.” Basically, the grasses that are cut for hay are then allowed to ferment over time, bottling in their nutrients and creating a whole host of microscopic organisms that live in the feed, and will eventually live in the gut and digestive system of your dairy cows.
Both forms of feed are very popular with farmers all over the US (and the rest of the world, for that matter). But, believe it or not, one of these food sources really does produce a whole lot more milk in cows than the other.
Let’s dig a little deeper to learn more.
Should Dairy Farmers Feed Hay or Silage?
Right out of the gate, it’s important to understand that dairy cows are going to be able to produce a lot of milk regardless of whether or not they are eating hay or silage.
Cows throughout history have fed on both of these two sources without much issue, have produced untold gallons of milk since the dawn of time, and will continue to produce milk regardless of whether or not you are feeding them hay or silage more often than not.
But researchers have discovered that feeding silage does increase overall milk production, and not by a small amount.
Ruminants like cows will work to suck every bit of nutrition out of their food sources, and silage traps a lot more of the nutrients, fibrous materials, and microorganisms cows need to stay happy and healthy.
The 2017 study done by Hay & Forage Grower showed that cows consuming silage more often than not were capable of producing significantly more milk than cows that were consuming mostly hay.
When these dairy cows were given 32.7 pounds of silage, 27.2 pounds of hay (on average), they were out producing those that were getting 25.8 pounds of silage and 33.2 pounds of hay (on average) by nearly 4%.
That’s not an insignificant number when you’re talking about the number of dairy cows that big farmers have. A 4% increase can turn into some significant profits in a hurry, all by shifting the heavier side of your food ratios towards silage than hay.
Benefits of Feeding More Silage to Dairy Cows
Of course, you get few other benefits by feeding more silage to your dairy cows than hay as well.
Silage is very nutritious, flooding your animal with all the nutrients they need to lead a happy and healthy lifestyle while maximizing overall milk yields. Silage is also a potent source of energy, protein, and fiber that goes a long way towards keeping your animals in tip-top condition.
Silage also happens to be a very affordable solution, especially when stacked up against seasonal hay sales that can get incredibly pricey for various reasons. Keeping your cost structure predictable (and affordable) is a big piece of the profitability puzzle as a dairy farmer.
Finally, producing silage guarantees that you preserve pasture that would have otherwise gone to waste. Collecting access pasture in the springtime for silage goes a long way towards preserving nutrients that would have been lost during the fall and winter seasons when pastures aren’t anywhere near as productive.
At the end of the day, there are many reasons to switch to silage versus hay as a dairy farmer. Increase in the milk output, healthy option for dairy cows, and cost effectiveness are some of the good reasons to make a switch from Hay to Silage.