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10 Forage Alternatives to Hay in a Drought Year

10 Forage Alternatives to Hay in a Drought Year

It seems we live in a time when we have to consider the implications of a drought year, almost every year. We live in a desert climate that requires us to always deal with a limitation of water, but when Mother Nature decides to withhold the heavenly dews, we can really feel the effects.

Hay prices are significantly higher during drought years, whether you are talking dairy quality hay or feeder hay. A drought in the southwest means hay buyers go as far north as northern Utah, northern Colorado and even into Idaho and Montana to find hay.

While a higher price is a challenge by itself, the fact that you may not be able to find hay at any price becomes an even greater problem. You might be asking yourself: What can I do if I can’t find hay? How can I minimize the impact of the higher forage costs in my feeding program this year?

There are alternatives to forages, but they are limited to what is available in your area and their use will be dictated by delivered cost.

Beet Pulp

Beet pulp is an alternative that makes sense if the price is right. It not only can replace forage in a diet, but it can also raise your ration neutral detergent fiber (NDF) digestibility which can result in higher milk production or higher rate of gain.

Beet pulp is a feed that will help hold or even improve butterfat in dairy cows. Those in the northern areas of our market may find beet pulp a better buy than other alternatives.

Almond Hulls

Almond hulls are another feed that can replace forage and will also provide good NDF digestibility. Almond hulls will also bring sugars into the diet, which has value from a rumen function perspective. Those closer to California may find almond hulls a better buy than other options.


Cottonseed is, of course, an excellent forage replacement because of its relatively high fiber content. Not only is it fairly high in fiber, but the fiber is highly digestible.

The fat in cottonseed is a potential concern since it provides a vegetable oil which can result in butterfat reduction through biohydrogenation. This effect can be mitigated through proper ration balancing so be sure and discuss this with your nutritionist before adding cotton to the diet.


Another alternative to forage is mill run (bran). Mill run does not bring as much NDF and certainly not as much scratch factor as the previously mentioned alternatives, but it will work in certain situations. Particularly where the diet is healthy from a fiber standpoint, perhaps because of coarse hay or high corn silage inclusion or even feeding some straw, mill run can be an excellent option.

Mill run provides high fiber digestibility along with a modest amount of starch. It is usually available on a consistent basis and the price is often very attractive. It does depend on where you farm in relation to the supply, but if available, it can work very well.

Wet Feeds

Citrus Pulp, Wet Malt, Wet Beet Pulp

There are some wet feeds that can also work to help extend forage supply if they are available in your area. Products like citrus pulp, wet malt and wet beet pulp can work very well, but you must be close to the source so you don’t haul water too far. Your nutritionist can help you make sure you do not get too high of a percent of water in your ration with the potential of depressing dry matter intake.

Grain Hays/Silage

Grain hays or silages such as wheat, barley or triticale can be a great replacement for alfalfa if it is available. If the grains are cut early enough, the digestibility and potential production increases resulting from feeding the forages can be significant. A properly cut grain forage should have a higher NDF digestibility than almost any alfalfa hay you will find.

Wheat Straw/Barley Straw

Wheat straw is another excellent alternative to help extend your alfalfa hay or corn silage. Straw generally has a very low fiber digestibility, but a pound or two can work well if fed in combination with something like mill run, beet pulp, or almond hulls.

Barley straw can also work, but my experience with barley straw is that it is much harder to break up in a mixer and tends to be sorted out more extensively than wheat straw. But if fed properly, barley straw can work also.

Reformulating your diet programs to include some or all of these products can help shave several pounds of alfalfa hay off your diet and still maintain excellent production or ADG.

Feeding a pound or two of straw, a few pounds of beet pulp, some mill run, a couple pounds of cotton and perhaps one of the wet feeds mentioned can reduce your hay usage by 3 to 10 pounds per cow. Over the course of the year, that can add up to a great reduction in hay usage, and it has the potential, if done correctly, to actually increase animal performance. This is not a poor strategy anytime but especially when hay prices are high.

What works for you depends on your hay situation, the alternative products available in your area, and the cost of hauling them to your location. What works for you will also depend on what your production levels are and what your goals may be. There are a variety of alternatives to feeding a high forage diet.

By discussing these options with your nutritionist, you should be able to come up with a program that works best for your situation. Any member of the IFA sales and nutrition team can discuss alternative forage options and help you decide which is right for your program.

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Written by David O. Jensen, PhD, and originally published in the IFA Cooperator magazine (vol. 84, no. 4) Winter 2018. David is an IFA Nutritionist at North Region Feed.