Straw is having a big year.
The golden-stemmed bottom half of the wheat plant has always been the low-priced also-ran, compared to wheat kernels and hay.
Over the past 15 or so years, wheat straw, along with the stems of other cereals, has played an increasing role in high quality dairy rations.
Why it matters: The increased demand for straw in dairy rations will force those who relied on it as an inexpensive source of feed and bedding to find other options.
A late 2018 harvest meaning lower wheat acres in Ontario and a wet 2019 spring meant low volumes of straw available this year. That’s spiked the price of wheat straw to about 10 to 12 cents per pound, compared to hay at 12 to 15 cents per pound.
It’s a historic development for anyone who grew up slinging hay and straw bales with the assumption that the hay was much more valuable.
Chris Martin, a farmer near Alma who is also a hay and straw dealer, says that the price “is too high to be sustainable for dairy farmers. It’s far higher than it used to be. It’s so high that guys look for alternatives.”
Good hay is also worth significant money now, due to lower yields in Ontario this year, especially in some areas that were too dry when it came time to harvest second-cut hay.
That’s also helped draw the price of straw up too.
It’s not just Ontario. At the World Dairy Expo, the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association had a booth to promote Canadian forages. This year, instead of the usual bales of hay, they had a large straw bale. There are now export markets for straw. It’s a global commodity now, says Martin, who sends straw into New York State.
“Who would have thought we’d ship straw to Japan,” he said.
A challenging harvest year on the Prairies has also meant there’s not much extra straw in the Canadian market.
The extra value of straw — which has historically been used for bedding — has resulted in several other effects in the agriculture economy.
The biggest impact is on the need for farmers to find other types of bedding. There’s more soybean straw being baled this year, for example. Beef farmers especially are looking for more bedding options. Corn stover is another option for feedlots.
The price of straw could yet become a problem for dairy farmers, and they could start looking for other options. Martin, who is the chairman of the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association, says some farmers have tried corn stover as a feedstuff, but straw has been valuable because of its consistency.
Dairy farmers have tested their hay for quality for years, needing to know protein, neutral detergent fibre (NDF) and digestibility measures in order to balance rations. As straw has increased in value, they also test the straw, but mostly to know mycotoxin levels and its consistency.
The Ontario Forage Council, which has been known for its promotion of Ontario hay, now also works with straw, says Ray Robertson, who manages the council. He says the council gets lots of calls from farmers looking for straw and it is also selling on the Ontario Hay Listings service run by the forage council.
The value of straw in a ration
Tom Wright, OMAFRA dairy cattle specialist, says he first spoke to a meeting of farmers about using straw in rations about 20 years ago. He says he got some strange looks and didn’t repeat the presentation.
Twenty years later, about 30 per cent of farms use straw in heifer rations, 36 per cent in lactating cow rations and half use straw in dry cow rations, according to Dr. Gail Carpenter of the University of Guelph, who has conducted research on switchgrass as a dairy alternative and spoke at a switchgrass information day this summer.
Wright says that the move to put straw in a ration came from research conducted by Jim Dricknell at the University of Illinois. He came up with the ‘Goldilocks diet,’ which says that dry cows need not too much energy or too little energy, but just the right amount. Straw allows cows to eat enough to feel full, without getting more energy than they need, which can make them fatter than is healthy.
“Data out of U.S. and the EU and our data say we’ve made real advances in transition problems,” says Wright.
The trend started in dry cows but has also moved to milking cows and heifers — although the current high prices for straw could change some of that.
Wright says the trend is also driven by increasing use of corn silage in dairy diets, which has meant a need for predictable, physically effective NDF.
Straw is “a concentrated source of physically effective fibre in milking rations,” which is replacing physically effective fibre from less alfalfa and grass forage.
“Ontario forage acres are definitely declining over time,” he said.
Farmers have also grown higher-quality hay with the trend to cutting earlier and quickly processing the hay into storage as haylage. They are also using more grass haylage, which can also lack effective fibre, but supplies high quality protein and digestibility. Some call it ‘rocket fuel for cows.’ Straw allows a farmer and nutritionist to dial back the rocket fuel by diluting it with straw.
“There are other options out there, but not all fibre is the same,” says Wright.
New markets drive more focus on straw
Straw as bedding hasn’t needed the storage and focus on quality compared to its evolution to a feedstuff.
Martin says straw for feed needs to be of higher quality, but storage is difficult to justify.
“Especially for the dairy guys, it can’t be black on the outside. You have to have good storage, but you also have to demand a premium price for it too, with the cost of storage,” he says.
Crop farmers are now working more with hay and straw brokers like Martin who go and bale it themselves.
“If they do a crappy job of combining and trample the rows down, guys baling it will not be interested in it,” says Martin.
Larger headers on combines have also made it a challenge, as so much straw is put down in a row behind the combines, another example of how what goes into the front of the combine is the focus compared to what comes out the back. In the end there’s money in straw — still not as much as in the wheat, but together there’s more profit in a wheat field. That’s helped make more profit for some farmers.
“Guys made good money on straw this year,” says Martin. “But it’s not sustainable in my opinion.”