Alfalfa’s Value in Cattle Rations

Alfalfa is known for its high protein and fiber content, making it a staple in many cattle rations. The high protein content reduces the amount of high-cost supplemental protein producers need to add to the diet.

Despite the recent rise in alfalfa costs, producers looking to boost nutrients and scale up milk or beef production may want to consider the potential benefits of adding more alfalfa to the ration.

Nutritionists believe the addition of alfalfa in a ration can significantly increase production. In addition to nutrients, alfalfa provides many benefits to cattle.

"It's a source of fiber and protein that's beneficial in the ration," says Dann Bolinger, a DuPont Pioneer dairy specialist based in Michigan. "In addition, it serves as a buffering agent to the rumen. This is helpful for efficient milk production."

Digestible Fiber Factor

When comparing alfalfa to corn silage, it's easy to see that corn silage production is an attractive option for dry matter tonnage and starch yield per acre.

"Alfalfa provides great balance in a ration," notes Mark Smith, DuPont Pioneer senior research scientist, Arlington, Wis. "It provides physically effective fiber as well as protein needed to balance a ration based on corn silage. Adding alfalfa in the ration also promotes good rumen health."

Compared to grass hay, alfalfa has more available nutrients. "Alfalfa means producers will need less soybean meal and less supplementation of protein and fiber nutrients," Bolinger explains.

Alfalfa promotes higher feed intake than grass, an important factor to consider for high-production cows.

Alfalfa also provides key minerals, including phosphorous and calcium. This forage also sparks the "tickle factor," which stimulates cattle to chew their cud and extract more nutrients.

A Lack of Acres

As alfalfa becomes more important in the ration, it also becomes a scarcer commodity. Producers may tend to turn to corn or soybeans to make more money. Partly because of this, alfalfa tonnage is increasingly important as producers select improved varieties and manage the fields more carefully.

Higher yields bring more value to the producer, providing greater amounts of forage.

"At DuPont Pioneer, our focus has always been selecting the right variety to get the best yield for producers as they manage their crop," Smith says. "Quality and yield go hand in hand. More dairies are seeing alfalfa as a valuable component of rations."

"The crop helps break up compaction, controlling erosion and providing nitrogen credits if corn is planted in the future," Bolinger says.

Alfalfa production helps make cropping systems more sustainable. Because it plays a critical role in the cow's rumen health, it's a good ingredient for any beef or dairy producer to consider. While the price of alfalfa may seem a deterrent, its value can make it worth the cost relative to other protein and fiber components. It's one of the proven ingredients we can include in cattle rations.

 
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