Rice straw shows promise as a dairy ration
Bales of rice straw (top photo) are stacked at a dairy, waiting to be chopped into an edible smaller size (lower right) to be used as a roughage component for heifers. Rice straw is being used more and more by dairy producers as a part of the total mix ration (TMR) for cows.
With higher and higher feed prices, dairies are searching for alternative feed sources. One of these sources is rice straw.
There are several key points to marketing rice straw to dairies that Glenn Nader, University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor for Yuba County, said should be considered by sellers and buyers of rice straw.
Dairymen don't care about color, Nader said.
"Beef cattle guys want color, and they want higher moisture. Dairymen just want it to mix," he said. "They're really looking for a dry product that mixes, and that's their No. 1 criteria."
Ken Collins, based in the Sacramento Valley, has been harvesting and selling rice straw to the dairy market. Collins agreed that the dairy market is different from the beef cattle market. Dairies want a product out of the rice straw, not just regular straw, he said.
"Dairy producers want it processed, so we run it through what is called a slicer or cutter baler," he said.
Collins' baler has a set knives in front, and it processes the straw into four- or five-inch lengths. Dairies want it this way, so when they put it into their mixer it blends, instead balling up into a big mess, he added.
In order to create a product that is usable for dairies Nader conducted a research project in 2007 that focused on "double chop" a method of harvest that slices the rice straw as it is baled. Five dairies participated in the study, and most of the dairies used the rice straw as bulk or a roughage component to the diet for heifers, Nader said.
Peter Robinson, Cooperative Extension dairy nutrition specialist with the University of California, Davis, also worked on the project and said, "What Glenn and I have been working with for a couple of years is ways to create a product that would be specific for dairies. In other words, it would be TMR (total mix ration) ready."
It's important that this harvesting method cuts the rice straw in four- to five-inch lengths, Robinson said.
"You get material that's much softer, but the key thing is that it's much shorter. So when it goes into the TMR mixers, it mixes it, doesn't break chains, and rip things up."
Jose Campos, general manager of Rob VanGrouw Dairy in Tulare, was a study participant.
"It's been very good. Actually, we're really happy with it," Campos said, adding his past experience with rice straw wasn't positive.
In previous experiements with rice straw, Campos had problems with the rice straw balling up and breaking his equipment when he tried to mix it.
"I was expecting the same thing, like it was going to ball up and do things like that and break my feeding wagon, the grain augers. But you know, it's working quite well," he said.
"Where rice straw was used as long rice straw (in dairies) it had a very bad reputation when going through the mixers," Robinson said. "Dairies that used rice straw in the past typically would chop it once they got it delivered."
This was a big problem for dairy producers because of all the equipment and power needed, plus it generated a huge amount of dust. Bottom line, it cost producers a lot of time and money, Robinson said.
They need a product that is what Robinson terms mixer ready.
"As a dairy producer, what you want is a material that once it comes off the truck it can go directly into the mixer, and create a TMR."
Collins agreed with Robinson.
"Dairy producers need a product with which the first bale and the last bale all blend the same. Our mission the last couple of years was to figure out how to do that and do it affordably," he said.
Last fall the weather kept Collins from harvesting as much rice straw as he would have liked.
"We had bad weather, so we didn't really penetrate the market like we wanted to," he said. Even so, the product was received pretty well and the price he received made it worth doing, he said.
Rice straw is workable for dairies, Robinson said.
"In my opinion, it's not workable for the lactating cows, but where we're seeing a lot of uses in rations is for replacement heifers and for dry cows."
Campos said he wasn't looking for rice straw as a nutrient.
"It's just a filler," he said.
Rice straw is very low nutrient-density feed, Robinson said, and it is also displacing some of the lower quality alfalfa hays. This is creating a domino effect, Robinson said.
"These lower quality forages are coming into the rations for the replacement heifers and the dry cows, and that's displacing lower quality alfalfa hays, which are then going into the larger replacement heifers and some of the close-up dry cows. And then you get this domino effect where you need less alfalfa, you can focus the alfalfa on the higher production groups."
Robinson doesn't foresee feed prices dropping.
"I think the trend is going to get worse not better. I mean we're losing land to forage production in California every week," he said, adding as transportation costs continue to rise, less hay will be shipped in from out of state.
Will more dairies look to rice straw? Campos said he thinks they will buy more straw as a filler.
Last year there was a big demand for rice straw from dairies, Collins said. He was able to expand his rice straw sales this past year, and that's because he delivered a product that worked into the dairy market, Nader said.
(Kathy Coatney is a reporter in Corning. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.