Nutritionists, Other Experts Offer Forage Advice
After eight years and 52 columns, I find myself penning my final column for Feedstuffs. It has been a learning experience for me and, I hope, for readers as well. It has also been an honor to share the Bottom Line of Nutrition: Dairy column with such respected predecessors as Tony Jimenez (1977-86), Mark Aseltine (1986-95), Paul Chandler (1986-2000), Ray Hinders (1995-08) and Al Kertz (2001-present).
The good news is that starting in February, Dr. Rick Grant, president of the W.H. Miner Institute, has agreed to be my replacement in writing the Feedstuffs column. I know Rick will do a great job, given his strong academic and applied background.
The niche I have attempted to fill with my column has been primarily focused around my personal interest in forages. As I was pondering what to write about in my last column, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to solicit nutritionists’ and academics’ thoughts on what they see as the most important forage-related areas they try to reinforce with their dairy clients.
Therefore, this final column will diverge from the typical format in that it consists of quotations about the important forage issues that were graciously provided by some of the most respected nutritionists and academics in our industry, who spoke on condition of anonymity. To lend some structure, I divided the responses into the main categories of field, harvest/storage and feeding. I hope you enjoy reading these insights as much as I did.
The number-one problem that I have to address is correct moisture content and crop maturity. This year has been very different in our geography. We are usually in a race to maintain plant moisture due to rapid dry-down of the corn crop. This year, we actually have the opportunity to allow the grain to mature to a point that we have adequate starch. However, many producers chose to harvest too soon and, thus, missed a great opportunity.
As you know, we simply cannot overcome forage quality with ration formulation. Better forages equal healthier cows equal higher productivity. Producing high-quality forages is a process with many opportunities for management intervention (hybrid selection, planting, growing, harvesting, storing, feedout, etc.).
I see too many operations that don’t have a “game plan” to properly manage, produce and feed high-quality forages. Each crop (predominantly corn silage and alfalfa silage) needs its own plan. For example, I see too many corn crops that are chopped immature at the beginning of harvest and way too mature by the end of harvest. Many of these corn crops are planted with a small span of relative maturity (i.e., 100- to 105-day maturity). I think most people understand that they plant corn much faster than they harvest corn, but they don’t adjust seed selection.
So, my number-one piece of advice to clients for forage production and feedout is to have a comprehensive game plan to deliver high-quality forages to the cows and evaluate how each aspect of the game plan affects other aspects (e.g., how does the speed of planting and the speed of harvest affect hybrid selection in corn silage production.)
I try to focus my clients on consistency in feed value from cutting to cutting. My dairy producers experience a lot of inconsistency in hay crop production due to growing and harvesting conditions. The same can be said about corn production, although we pare that down with fewer harvest windows. It does seem like there is very little interaction between the agronomic world and the nutrition world, and I think we could do a better job of coordinating these two disciplines and deliver more nutrients to the cow for production, components and reproduction.
A big problem in the Midwest is convincing farmers that the timing involved with harvesting dairy-quality alfalfa is more important than delaying the planting of corn by a few days.
Photo: Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock.
I have observed that the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” regarding crop yields and forage quality has grown exponentially wider with each downturn in the price of milk. For the “haves,” improvements in drainage, tillage, hybrid selection, feed bunk management, etc., have paid dividends. A conversation about forage quality with those who choose to bury their head in the sand, with regard to the aforementioned, is becoming quite tiresome.
That doesn’t mean that the “have-nots” cannot move into the category of the “haves.” In fact, many of the “haves” came to a point in the road in 2009 where they had to jump in with both feet and decide to do what it takes to compete in the modern milk market — or bow out.
Just in the last few years, we’ve seen tens of thousands of miles of tile being laid, land being leveled and modernization of tillage practices. It’s hard to have a conversation about forage quality with a “have-not” when, just six months earlier, their hybrid selection came down to “who had the cheapest field corn” or when a discussion about silage inoculant was dismissed out of hand as foo-foo dust.
Obviously, we can’t change things like the weather, which is why we need to take out as many variables as we can. How do we uncouple forage quality from the rest of the conversation? What would be the point of having premium-quality forages, only to deliver them to a severely overcrowded dungeon of a barn? What would be the point of piling up mountains of high-end silages and then tear into them recklessly later?
Forage quality is an attitude; it’s a lifelong ambition — a desire to improve the land, to improve the quality of forages both to increase yield and to reduce purchased feed costs. How does it make you feel when you walk onto a farm, new or old, with sand beds, proper stall design, (good ventilation), an ample amount of water and bunk space, a mountain of high-quality feed in front of the cows pushed up and a producer asking you about the latest technology? I am, of course, describing one of the “haves.”
I try to sensitize dairy producers to the cost of forage production, along with market value, and not assume that because you can grow it, it is an economical feed for your dairy. I don’t think there is an optimal amount of forage from a biological perspective, but I believe there is from an economic perspective. If you are limited in forage production, you can milk a lot more cows if you are at 40%. If you have poor cow comfort and can’t feed cows correctly, a higher-forage diet may be necessary as a “safer” diet.
If you have no byproducts in your area, it will be difficult to have low forage. Low-forage rations require access to byproducts, and you must have a digestible fiber source that has low starch. However, I view high-forage diets as costly and only warranted if performance justifies them.
I think dairies should consider their forage a fixed resource and seek to get as much income (milk) from that pile of forage as possible. With this in mind, a 40%-forage diet may be much more favorable than a 60%-forage diet.
It seems that producers fall into two groups: those who make great forage year in and year out, and those who don’t. The most frequent issues I run into on farm revolve around the small details of when to harvest, how to harvest, how to store, how to feed out and how to manage inventory. The details surrounding each of those items are critical, and the herds that get elite production somehow manage to nail them year after year. It never ceases to amaze me how good dairy producers get their timing down, and they are getting it done in the time windows that Mother Nature allows.
The one area we struggle to get dairy (producers) to buy into is cutting alfalfa a little early when they have a weather window. This year was a great example on first crop. The five days before Memorial Day, we had fantastic weather. Most dairymen would not cut because the “prime harvest time” was not until the following week. However, the next week, it rained all week long, so those who waited did not get started until the first week of June, and by then, the average quality was about 125-135 relative feeding value (RFV.) Even after all these years of talking forage quality, PEAQ stick, etc., it is amazing how many dairymen still rely on buds and blossoms and pass up ideal weather windows that they should take advantage of.
We talk to our clients about how the industries need to shift from “tons per acre” or “yield” to “tons of digestible organic matter per acre per unit of water per year” as a metric of forage production. What drives success isn’t the yield but, rather, the tons of digestible nutrients with water included as a variable, just like fertilizer. Rather than “per cutting,” we really need to look at the annual productivity of the land, which includes cover crops or a second crop.
A better year-round focus on soil and water management through the use of cover crops is needed. A fair market value also needs to be realized by the dairy for the manure supplied on crop acres, with a better recognition of the enhanced soil value of manure over chemical fertilizers to support sustainable soil health. Soil compaction and tilth is becoming a bottleneck in some areas with existing cropping practices and equipment.
Having a stronger focus on the “real value” of manure will play a role in improving the productivity of the land and soil. Dairies also need to better understand the “critical control points of quality forage management” from growing to feedout. Integration, communication, planning and protocols are needed between the crop consultants, growers, harvest team, nutritionist and the dairy producer, with the opportunity for financial success for everyone involved. There is a need for better teamwork and leadership around the entire process.
The main concern our nutritionists have with forages is getting everyone involved on the farm to understand the importance of making, storing and feeding high-quality forage. To accomplish that, we have conducted on-farm meetings that include owners, managers, lenders, feeders, herds people, forage equipment operators, truck drivers and packer operators. We start with the cow and what forage quality means to the cow, then the economics of feeding high-quality forage and then go through four or more years’ worth of their forage analysis results and trends. As those data lead us to areas of opportunity, we then tackle those and make action plans to address.
It is great to do these year after year, because you can show the whole team where they have made progress by everybody focusing on key areas of opportunity.
The areas I focus on are forage choices and forage balance. In other words, select forage types and hybrids that will grow to proper maturity on (a particular) farm nine years out of 10 — not the neighbors’ farms or something you read in a magazine that works somewhere else. Also, have a plan and a specific person who polices the plan (no matter what happens) for forage harvest and ensiling to maximize quality and minimize shrink.
A visitor from Europe recently told me,“You Americans waste too much feed,” and I see too much of this going on with my clients. He went on to say that “we soil sample, prepare the ground perfectly, spend a lot of time trying to decide what is the right seed and population; you fertilize it, plant it, spray for weeds, bugs, maybe even treat with a fungicide and cut or chop at what you think is the ideal time. Then, right at the end, you wreck everything you worked so hard for by chopping too wet or too dry, not packing it enough and not maintaining a good silage face.”
Although this has gotten better, my biggest forage issue is convincing farmers of the value of having an extra month of corn silage in inventory. They talk about land use and storage cost, and I remind them about reduced cow problems in the fall trying to feed new-crop silage.
My advice to clients is to never buy alfalfa hay sight unseen. Knowledge of where hay was grown, cutting intervals, sampling and analytical techniques, along with how it was baled, are as important as a laboratory analysis. Examination of a road-sided or barn-stored stack should include visual and tactile appraisal; the latter adds to laboratory information regarding fiber quality.
All too often, alfalfa hay is traded merely on tests that, on their own, provide insufficient information regarding quality. No matter how many tests we devise, cattle are the ultimate judge of feed quality.
Reduce forage dry matter shrink, including field losses (respiratory and field losses plus rain damage), harvest losses (including pasture trampling and raking/baling losses), storage losses (including oxidation in silages, heat damage, fermentation losses, surface losses and face losses)and feeding losses (including mixing, particle size reduction, weighing, etc.). These forage dry matter losses can range as high as 30% without adjusting for nutrient losses.
I find forage and resulting ration consistency to be my number-one issue. Forage consistency includes quality issues, bunk management, storage and feedout issues, moisture content and inventory constraints. Cows like boring rations that are not constantly changing up on them. If the forages (and ration) are consistent, good or bad, it makes it easier to know the results of ration adjustments. If forages (quality, moisture, availability) are constantly changing, it can be nearly impossible for the nutritionist to evaluate results of adjustments and for the cows to adapt to a constantly changing ration. I find high corn silage rations to be more consistent than grass or legume-based rations.
Here are a few of the forage issues that I try to reinforce with my clients:
- Cover silage as soon as packing is done. I see too many situations where the pile stays open for more than a few hours after packing is completed, and the effort put into packing is then compromised by this extended air exposure.
- I — and my clients who have gone to these — find mechanical defacers to be of great values in face management. While difficult to measure the economic value, my clients believe they pay off.
- Sizing silage piles is a continual challenge as herd sizes grow, tonnage of various cutting varies, etc. Improper sizing can definitely affect the amount of waste and quality of feed if faces are too big.
- Use either oxygen-barrier film and/or double layers of plastic. Top layer spoilage is minimal to none when done correctly.
- Separate alfalfa and grass cuttings as much as logistically possible. That way, we can allocate feeds to the correct groups of animals based upon individual pile/bunker forage quality. If cuttings are piled on top of each other, a defacer is a must in order to get a good blend for feeding.
We coach our dairies to focus on the economics of growing versus purchasing forages and to establish legal contracts for purchased forages, including clear incentives around quality parameters such as starch content and the degree of kernel processing.
Forage consistency is most important. Cattle are creatures of habit. They like things to be consistent. When they’re not, we have access to technologies such as TMR Tracker, EZ Feed, etc., which clearly tell us we have inconsistency when we track feed mixing to intakes to daily production.
Interestingly enough, when I come on to a new farm and detect an opportunity for improvement, the producer may say, “This is how we have always done it,” and then I try to be bold enough to say, “It’s been wrong for so long that you think it’s right.”
The best example of the importance of consistency was a couple of years back, when corn silage sampled from bags or uprights was all over the board due to lots of field-related variability, and we saw it immediately in the components we were getting. This is why I encourage bunkers to be a “blend” from these variable crops and pay attention to how we transitioned to different forages.
Dealing with inconsistency would be my number-one concern. With corn silage, this involves having plenty of carryover to allow the new crop to ferment and feed well — avoiding issues with changing starch degradability and fiber digestibility. With haylage and grass silages, this means dealing with crops that are inherently variable. So, harvest at the proper maturity for the hay crop and grass, and then make well-informed decisions based on lab tests — such as neutral detergent fiber (NDF) digestibility — when changing bunkers/bags.
A never-ending quest for dairy producers and their nutritionists and a topic we continually discuss with clients is the proven, effective means of increasing the NDF digestibility of their forages, be it through hybrid selection, harvest procedures or other means.
My number-one priority is consistency. On larger operations, the biggest opportunity involves testing and identifying the feed quality of each stack of hay, bag of silage, etc., and feed according to the quality instead of the next stack/bag in line.
The basics always win — both forage and cow management. Minimize the loss of quantity and quality between the field and the cow by following basic forage harvest (dry matter, maturity, etc.), storage and feedout principles. Use precision feed and feed management practices to consistently deliver the formulated ration on a daily basis. An area that I really believe is being missed on most farms is monitoring the particle size and adequacy of kernel processing during corn silage harvest.
I like to work with clients that are ready for change, want to be challenged and are willing to invest in learning and leadership skills. Typically, nutritionists are hired because there is a problem dairymen want solved. The original problem comes with many opportunities. Fresh cow challenges, low milk, low components, reaching a plateau — (these are) a few problems. The areas I believe have the fastest influence on dairy performance in the beginning are mixer performance (consistency, proper mixing action, length, sequencing, etc.) and feed management (quality of the face, timing of drops, pushups, weigh-backs, etc.).
Then, the next chapter leads us into forage management around putting up quality, clean forages that are properly stored.
There are two areas that seem to be a reoccurring theme: the presence of yeast/molds and delivery consistency. I seem to spend time discussing with producers the importance of growing a healthy crop and harvesting and putting it up in a timely manner (properly chopped, packed and inoculated, etc.) so we can deliver a consistent, stable total mixed ration (TMR) to the herd. It seems like almost every dairy ration I look over has some sort of binder, etc., in the ration, and many have multiple ones trying to improve intakes and performance. The elite herds always have great forages that they are working with, and that is a huge reason they are “elite” herds.
Too often, I see producers making key mistakes that set their crop up for molds and yeasts, such as:
- Growing a variety or type of forage in conditions where it is not suited, e.g., varieties that are high performers do best with very fertile ground and consistent moisture, and they plant it on sandy ground with no irrigation;
- Harvesting forages at improper moisture levels — setting themselves up for a poor fermentation;
- Not chopping at the proper length. Too often, rather than looking at their TMR and seeing what they need for particle size in order to deliver a consistent TMR to the cows, they chop at whatever the latest “article” or coffee shop talk is recommending they do;
- Packing the pile properly. You get some herds that get 18-20 lb./cu. ft. dry matter, and then too many are still struggling to get out of the 14-15 lb. range. Also, (some go) too steep on piles or ramps, and nothing gets packed;
- Purchasing too many inoculants based on the cheapest price, and
- Sizing the face to feed enough off and keeping a clean, hard-packed face.
I try to reinforce the importance of producing consistent forages that remain consistent through the entire feeding period. An example from two years ago involves a dairy averaging about 100 lb. of milk per day with 3.5% fat and 3% protein. They ran out of haylage so bought a few trailer loads of 200-plus RFV hay to replace 6 lb. of haylage dry matter in the diet. In the month of July, their milk rose to 110 lb. with 4% fat and 3.15% protein. I have never been a big fan of using straw in a lactating diet but always thought there was a place for 2-5 lb. of high-quality hay.
One other thing that is not mentioned too often is the meal size. I am sure you can get very different responses to a high-forage diet depending on how often a cow has an opportunity to eat and how this affects her meal size.
Harvest maturity/moisture and communication with the dairy are key forage topics with our clients. As nutritionists, we struggle when feeders make forage changes or substitutions in our formulated diets. It may be the same forage yet contain significant differences in moisture content and/or nutrient value. Recently, I had corn silage change from 38% to 31% dry matter due to a field change during harvest. The producer immediately wanted to know why cows were eating so much.
Another example was a producer changing from one bag of alfalfa silage to another. Production tanked, even though they both had similar dry matters. Both bags had been tested at harvest, but poor communication meant we were not informed about the bag change until weeks later.
Another issue is forage dietary cation/anion difference (DCAD) levels in closeup forage. Another potential substitution disaster is if feed sources appear to be the same, yet ignoring DCAD could be a virtual bomb on freshening animals. These are very simple items but sometimes are overlooked and extremely frustrating.
By far, the most challenging item we deal with is forage consistency relating to harvest and storage moisture, type, source and digestibility. As an example, the most challenging aspect of dealing with drought situations is the interruption of a consistent source of effective fiber being replaced by an inconsistent supply.
Dairy production is a momentum game. The most momentum (and gains in productivity) usually evolves from consistency. Nutritionists are employed to navigate a new path with each new circumstance, but it seems that herd momentum is lost nearly every time we reconfigure that path — when the supply of “that” forage is exhausted and we are on to seeking another solution.
The Bottom Line
It is obvious from reading these comments from nutritionists and academics actively involved in advising dairy producers on forage issues that harvest timing, storage, quality assessment and consistency are critical factors for a productive and profitable dairy enterprise. It is my hope that reading this sage advice may help producers and their consultants implement ideas to improve forage management
Originally published in the December 2015 Feedstuffs issue. Reproduced with permission.