The William H. Miner

Agricultural Research Institute

Miner Institute
Farm Report

HIGH-FORAGE RATIONS

I recently provided some advice to a dairy farmer who’s bound and determined to put up enough high quality forage in 2012 to be able to feed an 80% forage ration to his 80-lb production group. Most farmers aren’t going to this extreme but many want a higher percentage of forage in their lactating cow rations, especially when they look at their grain bill.

An easy statement to make about high-forage diets (at least 60% forage on a dry matter basis): It isn’t easy. In fact it’s really hard since everything falls to pieces if you don’t mow first cut forage until after it’s headed (grass) or after it blooms (alfalfa). You can feed late first cut to low producers and heifers, but if you want to replace grain with forage you need an increased amount of high quality forage (not all that difficult a concept) so there’s little room for error. This is true whether delayed harvest was due to adverse weather or poor management. While a high percentage of corn silage in the ration gives you some flexibility, high-fiber, low-digestibility forage makes a tough challenge much more difficult.

I’d like to be optimistic about high-forage rations becoming common in the Northeast. However, between Mother Nature and human nature, few farmers will harvest enough low-fiber forage (40% NDF for legumes, 50-55% NDF for grasses) and high quality corn silage to make it possible. There will be too much corn silage harvested at less than 30% DM, resulting in lower starch content and lower whole plant digestibility. (I’m assuming that a high-forage ration has the goal of maintaining good milk production. It’s easier to make a high-forage ration “work” if your cows aren’t making much milk to begin with.)

Some keys to high-forage rations:
• Harvest alfalfa at the bud stage and grass in the boot stage, even if it means sacrificing some yield — which it will. A very wet late May can doom even the best of plans.

• Plant corn hybrids adapted to your growing season and planting date, using management that will result in good yields of well eared, high-energy corn silage. Because of the uncertainty of weather conditions at the time of first cut, high corn silage diets and high-forage rations go hand-in-hand.

• Harvest corn for silage at 33% DM or higher, processing the crop so that the grain is highly available to your cows. You might consider BMR corn, but at least as important as hybrid selection is proper harvest DM.

• Ensile properly, regardless of storage structure. An additional 10% spoilage loss is even worse than a 10% yield loss because you’ve already spent the money to harvest and ensile the forage.

• Work with a competent dairy nutrition consultant, one who will rely on regular forage analyses to continually fine-tune rations for changes in forage quality.

— Ev Thomas

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The Miner Institute Farm Report is written primarily for farmers and other agricultural professionals in the Northeastern U.S. and Eastern Canada. Most articles deal with dairy and crops topics, but also included are articles dealing with environmental issues and global agriculture as well as editorial commentary.

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