With a sagging dairy economy, a high-forage diet can provide the quickest route to improving your bottom line. High grain diets become less efficient with higher grain prices, but producing high-quality forages on the farm and feeding them as a majority of the ration can increase profitability and lower the break-even price for milk production. Feed costs of course vary, but you will realize significant savings and more profit with less purchased feed.
A successful high-forage diet produces high-quality forage. Without highly-digestible forage, dry matter intake cannot stay high enough to support consistent milk production. High digestibility is important so that the fiber energy content is highly available to the animal. To achieve this, however, forage maturity stage must be carefully managed.
NDFd, the digestible portion of NDF, tends to be quite high in a forage that is cut or grazed in the vegetative state, which gives the animal both the effective fiber they need in their diet and the energy and protein. When you include these high quality grasses, you can feed a high-forage diet without sacrificing milk yield. NDFd is generally much higher in grasses than alfalfa, which means that a mix of the two will be much more nutritionally balanced than straight alfalfa.
Modern improved perennial grasses have been developed to deliver maximum quality to the animal. For example, later heading grasses now match the maturity of alfalfa, making the two easier to combine in a single crop. Many have also been bred for lower lignin (indigestible fiber), greater yield of vegetative growth, and greater leafiness in relation to the stem.
Benefits of the high-forage diet
Feeding more digestible forages, such as BMR sorghums or sorghum-sudans, has the potential to lead to a rise in dry matter intake. Milk production really depends what you feed – how much of it, the species and variety, the stage of growth, and the nutritional quality. Total milk yield varies depending on a multitude of factors, but many producers who transition to the high-forage diet report better components.
Forage costs like seed, fertilizer, and crop chemicals increase but the decline in purchased feed costs can more than offset the additional cost.
Forage inventories and pastures can be maximized with an intensive double-crop rotation that increases total yearly tonnage on each acre. Plus, you’ll have a better ability to budget the year’s feed costs without the looming uncertainty of feed price fluctuations.
Keep up rumen health
The rumen is a fermentation chamber where fiber is converted into more digestible sources of protein and energy. The biggest threat to a healthy rumen is an overly acidic pH. Too much starch in the diet causes acidification. A cow on a higher-forage diet, though, chews her cud more. More cud-chewing induces more saliva production, and saliva contains bicarbonate, a natural basic buffer against acidosis.
How to make it work
To start with, the forage inventory and the available land base have to accommodate a high-forage diet. The proportion of homegrown forage you can feed really comes down to how many acres you have available and how much tonnage you can produce on those acres. Tonnage depends on whether you are growing perennials or annuals, stage of maturity at harvest, and whether you have the time in the rotation and the means to double crop.
To get profitable returns from the high-forage diet, you have to invest in it. Buy the highest quality perennial and annual seed. Pay close attention to growing, harvesting and ensiling, if the forage will be harvested; and planning stocking rate, residual, and recovery time if it will be grazed. Make dietary changes gradually for the high-producing group.
With stored/fermented feeds, test for forage quality and starch levels and make sure the numbers fall within the desirable set of parameters. As you get more comfortable with this, you and your nutritionists will likely develop your own set of ideal forage analysis numbers. The nutritionist can carefully monitor starch and moisture and find the “sweet spot” over time. Try to keep the diet relatively consistent, which means making gradual rather than abrupt adjustments.
The biggest factor, perhaps more important than the specific species you plant, is the maturity stage at harvest or grazing. Getting the forage off the field before heading (often before boot stage for many annuals) is critical to getting a high quality forage.
If the crop is being harvested and ensiled, pay close attention to moisture and particle size. Both greatly impact how well the material packs to exclude oxygen, and how it ferments to preserve sugars and prevent dry matter loss. Keep ag bags and silos tight and fill quickly.
Most of the same principles apply to grazing forage as chopping it. Milk production will be higher the more high quality pasture you can grow and feed per land unit. This depends on the amount of pasture allocated per cow, the pasture management, and the amount and quality of the supplements provided. Pasture is usually grazed at a less mature stage than forage is cut, however, so pasture grasses may be sufficient in protein but lacking in energy. Careful supplementation is needed to correct for that (dry hay usually does the trick) – the animals need to consume about 5 times as much energy as protein for proper protein digestion and absorption – and this reiterates the fact that high energy grasses with high NDFd are just as important to feed as legumes. Cows may also have increased energy requirements on pasture, since they expend energy with more walking and exertion to get to the forage or water source.
Also consider supplementing grazing with an annual forage. Annuals have more vegetative growth over a shorter time and will yield a high energy content quickly. They can be very beneficial to fill gaps in production; producing high DM yields in a very short time period.
Whether grazing or confined, cows’ milk production ultimately depends on the total dry matter they consume, and they will consume the most when the forage is at peak quality and yield.
Managing pasture long term to ensure a steady and productive supply means, in large part, not overgrazing. Graze down to a minimum of 3-4 inch residual to have enough regrowth to ensure consistent yield over the course of the season. Clip pasture several times per year, manage soil fertility carefully, and know when to reseed. You should also have a good idea of how much the animals are consuming.
To learn more about incorporating more forage into the ration, attend a free Forage Workshop this winter.