Using Nurse Crops in Spring Planted Alfalfa – by Chad Hale

Numerous university trials over the past 20 years have shown that using a nurse crop with spring-seeded alfalfa can reduce the yield of the alfalfa stand for several years past the seeding year. Still many producers feel the need to use a nurse crop when spring-seeding alfalfa because they need as much forage as possible off of the newly seeded acres in the seeding year.

There are several steps that you can help your customers take that will give them the extra yield of the nurse crop without harming the alfalfa too badly. The first and most important step when using any of the small grains or small grain mixtures (like our Milk Max) is to cut the seeding rate in half. This rate is a good balance of giving good ground cover to suppress weeds and prevent erosion while not being too thick and smothering the alfalfa seedlings.

Second, be sure the farmer knows the value of harvesting the nurse crop on time. It is important to harvest small grain nurse crops at the boot stage. This makes sure the forage is the highest quality, but also removing the nurse crop early exposes the alfalfa seedlings to sunlight sooner. If the farmer waits until soft dough stage, it can be as much as three weeks later at harvest and those three weeks could have given the alfalfa a good chance to grow and get well established before the summer heat comes.

Recently, a Byron Dealer and I have been discussing the use of Green Spirit Italian Ryegrass as a nurse crop. It certainly is a good crop to use as a nurse crop, but even more care must be taken to reduce the seeding rate than with small grains. At our winter meetings in Wisconsin, Dr. Dan Undersander shared some information that he has gathered over the past few years in Wisconsin showing that Italian Ryegrass can reduce the alfalfa stand at rates higher than 2-4 lbs per acre when seeded with alfalfa. Also be aware that Italian ryegrass has better regrowth potential than small grains so if the customer expects pure alfalfa after the first cutting of the nurse crop, Italian Ryegrass is pretty likely to show up in later cuttings. In most cases, we think that is a good thing, but the guy who is trying to sell pure alfalfa hay may not agree!

For farmers that are more concerned with getting the highest possible yield per acre rather than how many trips they make across the field, another scenario to think about is to sow the small grain crop alone at the full rate in the spring. This crop can be harvested for high quality silage and then alfalfa can be summer-seeded without a nurse crop. By next year, the farmer will have a fully productive alfalfa stand with no chance of suppression from the nurse crop. Also he would have gotten maximum yield from his small grain this spring. We recommend Tritcale Plus Spring in this scenario to get massive amounts of high quality feed.

Fertility Requirements For Summer Annuals – by Gerry Davis

It has been said that sorghums can grow on ground that corn won’t, however meeting fertility needs is as still important with sorghums (sorghum-sudans, forage sorghums and sudan hybrids) as with any crop.

Sorghums will produce twice the forage on an inch of rain or irrigation as will corn, but they do have similar nitrogen needs. Nitrogen needs for sorghums can most easily be expressed as 1 to 1½#’s N/acre per growing day. This separates the multi-cut sorghum-sudans (SS) and sudan hybrids (SH) from the single cut forage sorghums (FS). SS and SH should be spoon-fed due to the luxury feeding of N by these plants. Limit the N to the amount needed between cuttings. Since they are first cut in 45 days after planting and every 30 days thereafter (with adequate sunlight), suggested application rates are 45-50 units and 30-35 units, respectively. These rates of N application are important to prevent nitrate toxicity. Obviously, single-cut FS needs to have the N in place for the whole growing period unless fertigation (fertilizing thru irrigation) is used.

Sorghum, like corn silage removes a huge amount of biomass from the soil which requires the replacement of N, P and K. Unlike GMO corn, however, the sorghum root-mass breaks down readily and returns organic matter more quickly to the soil. See table 1 for nutrient uptakes for various 30% DM forage removal rates.

Summer Annuals Nutrient Requirements
Tons biomass @ 30% DM Nitrogent Ibs/Acre P as P2O5 Ibs/Acre K as K2O Ibs/Acre
10 50 45 80
15 75 65 100
20 100 75 120
25 125 75 140
30 150 75 160

Table 1 (from Purdue Forage Field Guide 2009)

With any fertility recommendation comes the advisory to test the soils and know the cropping history of the field you are planting. This is especially true where residual herbicides have been applied. Manure applications are must also be accounted for and are recommended for only the pre-plant and not the second or third application in SS and SH plantings.

Building A Better Pasture & Hay Fertility Program – by Dennis Brown

As the title suggests we need to look at our forage fertility as a program.

The definition of a program is “a planned, coordinated group of procedures for a specific purpose.” Our purpose is to get the most kilocalories per acre. This includes forage quality and yield. Producers wonder why does the nutrient levels of their pasture and hay ground appear to be so lacking, when fertilizer is being spread and/or manure is constantly being applied or (deposited) there? This is a common question from those growers who have soil tests pulled on their pasture and hay ground. For the ones that don’t have soil test they are not sure why the yield is not there, why the cows won’t milk, or why the stock just won’t eat the hay or grass as well.

How many producers assume that due to stocking rates they will have adequate fertility because of all the manure being deposited on their pasture and all the money spent on fertilizers on hay acres? And how many livestock producers spend large sums of money to purchase excellent animals and then put them on pastures or feed hay that receive an occasional fertilizer top-dressing, and expect it to suffice for maintaining top herd health and excellent pasture fertility. Cattle will utilize minerals from forages up to 30% more efficiently than free choice fed minerals.

Unfortunately, it seems that so many who have livestock on pasture, incorrectly make this type of assumption. There are those who have successfully accomplished growing grass this way, to a point and, consequently, too many consider that testing pasture and hay fertility levels is completely unnecessary. But there are times and circumstances when a high price must be paid for thinking like that. It can ultimately result in costly losses in terms of plant and animal health, and even needlessly limit potential forage production. Most pasture and hay soils treated this way will never come close to attaining their top production potential, especially the improved forage genetics that Byron provides. The forages are only as good as your soils. Same as your cows are only as good as your feeding program.

Most soils need more than N- P- K. N-P-K should be added in sufficient amounts if required, but not at the expense of neglecting other required nutrients for top performance such as Calcium, Boron, Sulfur, and Zinc. Furthermore, the two nutrients most affected by manure in terms of an increase in soil fertility levels are phosphorous and potassium. Nitrogen is harder to measure because of the leaching effect and microbial tie up in the organic matter of the soil. In other words, two of the three macro nutrients most often supplied as fertilizer are the most likely nutrients to be supplied from manure. The producer needs to be careful not to over apply manures or over apply P and K in any form.

Excess nutrients can have just as a negative affect as a deficeienes of nutrients. Our goal is to have a balance of nutrients in the soil. However, we should keep in mind: because manure that is produced on pastures that are already lacking one or more of these needed nutrient will likely also be short when it comes to supplying those same nutrients. On dairy farms calcium is the #1 nutrient that lacking, this is due to milk has a percentage of calcium per volume and it leaves the farm daily. Such deficiencies occur in far more forage acres than most producers seem to suspect.

Many producers are not comfortable enough to make fertility recommendations with or without without a soil test. Here is a general rule of thumb on making recommendations if you know how much nutrients are removed with each ton of forage. With this knowledge you can recommend enough nutrients to replenish what was removed or the nutrients needed to start a new seeding.

Below are suggested levels on a soil test for optimum forage tonnage and quality. If you do have a soil test you can use these recommendations. Saying this doesn’t make these levels gospel! Soil fertility is just a piece of the puzzle. Mother Nature has a larger hand in forage production than what we do. But if she decides to play nice and have favored on us, these levels will give you the optimum forage. Although if we can keep the fertility levels adequate it will help the forages go through stressful situations and will greatly increase the total persistence of the forage stands.

Fertility Guide
Organic Matter 2-4%
CEC 12-19
pH 6.5-7
P1 (phosphorous) 30 ppm
K (potassium) 200 ppm
S (sulfur) 15 ppm
B (boron) 2 ppm
Zn (zinc) 5 ppm


Base Saturation
K 6-8%
Ca 70%
Mg 20%

The Value of Fall Seedings – by Samuel Fisher

Late summer and early fall has many advantages over spring for planting forages. Planting at this time of year can spread your risk and you can, at times, depending on weather and latitude harvest quite a bit of high quality forage before winter.

Having plants growing late in the fall gives you the chance to harvest sunlight for more days of the year. This benefits soil life and keeps it active – giving you more and quicker yields in the following spring and beyond. Here are some fall seeding options:

Perennial Pasture

  • Can be seeded after corn except in the most northern areas of the Midwest
  • Less weed pressure than spring seedings
  • Get 2 tons per acre more next year compared with a spring seeding next year
  • Pasture is ready for early grazing next year
  • Better stands than spring seeded stands
  • Overall our experience has been that fall seeded stands outperform spring seedings in yield and density

Alfalfa and Grass Hay/Haylage Mixture

  • Alfalfa has to be seeded 5 weeks before frost to ensure winter survival
  • Fall seeding provides much better broadleaf weed competition than spring sowings. The grass out-compete weeds
  • 2-3 tons per acre more hay next year (at $250 per acre or more)
  • Healthier more active soil compared to spring seedings

Double Cropping with Annuals

  • Great way of extending the growing season with very high quality feed
  • Annual grains and grasses have excellent root structures to recycle nutrients and loosen soil
  • Yields an additional 2-4 tons of dairy quality hay per acre – at a value of $200 per ton or more.

Cover Crops

  • For those who are serious about building soils
  • Allows something green and growing for more days of the year.
  • Cover crops outcompete weeds and can reduce pests and diseases, meaning less pesticide use
  • Helps mellow soils and slowly release nutrients
  • Builds long term yield potential of cash crops

Preparing Grass Stands for Winter – by Chad Hale

If you have been to a Byron Seed meeting lately, you know that we put a lot of emphasis on fall management of grasses. Although the title of this article is about winter, preparation for winter really begins in the late summer with grasses.

Many times when we think our grass stand ‘winter killed’ the damage was really done in the summer.

The typical grasses we grow in the Midwest are Cool Season grasses, which grow best below about 80 degrees. As the temperature climbs above 80, the plants spend all their energy on respiration and very little energy is left for growth. As I write this, the forecast looks to be hot and dry for an extended period this summer. That will be very hard on our grasses. So what can you do to help ensure good grass stands for the future?

Jerome Magnusen of DLF International Seeds offers these suggestions:

  1. Keep an eye on fertility as you progress through the summer. By late August or early September, the plant will shift considerable resources to growing roots and P and K must be available for root growth. Enough Nitrogen needs to be available to fuel the process
  2. Leave more residue in the summer. Raising cutter bars or changing stocking rates or rotation lengths may be necessary to leave enough residue to fuel regrowth once temperatures cool and soil moisture returns. With most grasses at least 3.5 inches of residual height is needed for maximum growth.
  3. Remember that the health status of the plant in early fall determines next year’s growth potential. The number of tillers for next spring is set by the end of September. A weakened plant then will give you open stands and reduced yield the following year.

As we think about how to implement the things Jerome talks about, it becomes clear that the right decisions may not be easy to make. If the summer drought doesn’t ease up soon, forage yields are going to suffer this fall and the temptation to scalp stands down to the dirt will be very hard to resist as hay/silage stocks decline and cows are short of pasture heading into fall. As much as it goes against the grain, feeding hay to animals on pasture in late August can pay huge benefits in forage production later in the fall and into the next spring. Raising the cutter bars an inch or even forgoing one forage harvest can mean the difference in stand survival.

Evaluate stands in late August to estimate the production later into the fall and next spring. There should be an abundance of leaves at the base of the plants that are starting to grow. Some buds should have broken dormancy at or near ground level and white roots should be starting to appear in the top 6 inches of soil. Stands that are not bouncing back from the drought may need to be over-seeded in the fall to maintain good yields next spring. For grazing or silage, Italian ryegrass or festulolium is a great choice for over-seeding thin stands. Tall fescue or orchardgrass can be no-tilled into thin hay fields, but be aware than these two species need lots of open ground to get established. Each fescue or orchardgrass seedling needs a few square inches of bare dirt in order to get established. A solid stand of dormant grass is not a good candidate for fescue or orchardgrass over-seeding because when those stands break dormancy the new seedlings will probably not survive. If you have good ground cover, your best bet is to concentrate on fertility and adequate residual height and wait for fall rains.

Options For Emergency Forages – By Rick Tamm & Larry Hawkins

With the unpredictability of the weather and other factors, this year seems to be bringing many questions about emergency forages.

As I write this article, we, in the Upper Midwest, are seeing both long drought periods and not far away with a 10 inches of rain in a day and flooding. Couple this with a mild winter, which has allowed a preponderance of insects, grubs, worms and slugs to nibble on our corn. This is not to mention an 80° March and a cold April which gave false alarms to hay growth and seeding timing. When will have an normal, average weather pattern again?!?

So what are we to do? At least for the feed shortage part, We have some answers. There crops that can qualify for emergency forages which can solve our need for high quality replacement feed. Solutions come from forages which favorably answer the following questions:

  1. Will the crop establish quickly?
  2. Will the crop produce harvestable forage in 45 to 60 days?
  3. Will the crop grow in the weather conditions predictable (?) for the area?
  4. Will the crop fit into your operation’s feeding and harvesting system? Grazing only? Mechanical harvesting only? Kemper head only, etc.?
  5. Does the crop unfavorably limit options for the next seeding?
  6. Does the crop produce high quality forage?

This article cannot answer all of these questions for you on your farm and in your area, however your Byron Seed dealer can help. What will be covered are many options that may be appropriate for your farm and your locality. Some will be well known and other options may be more adventurous! The list is ordered roughly in the order that they can be sown or planted. Some options are actually triple crops that can be accomplished in the Upper Midwest! The end of the list will have options that fall-planted, and bring about the earliest forage in the spring.

  1. Plant AS9301 or AS6402, etc. into any field that either comes open early (wheat, or other small grain) or has had a disappointing harvest this summer (poor hay stand, drought-stressed or poor corn emergence).
  2. Do the above and add 5Ibs of common red clover to add to the protein of the main crop and then provide a cover crop for the winter and either a green manure or harvestable legume for the spring.
  3. Plant AF7101, 7201 or 7303 (depending on potential hot weather remaining. Although usually harvested at soft dough stage like corn silage. Taking the crop before maximum yield either forced by frost or just mowing and wide swathing, allowing it to dry to less than 70% moisture is also possible. Using the above mentioned forage sorghums (Concep® treated) allows for the option of herbicide control which isn’t available with option 1.
  4. Plant Master Graze (MG). MG can finish 45 to 60 days without the need for as much hot weather as any of the sorghum products. Its expected tonnage (4 to 5 tons of DM) is also very high for the its relative maturity.
  5. Sow Forage Plus® Oats, Everleaf Oats or Trical®2700 forage triticale in August to get a quick crop of high quality forage. Oats and spring triticale are less likely to head out when fall planted thereby maintaining their high quality longer. Due to this fact: Jerry Oats can be fall-sown and approach the quality of the forage oats.
  6. Plant 75Ibs of the above oats and 75Ibs Trical®336/815 in August to get both a fall harvest and a spring harvest. When harvesting in the fall, be sure to leave a 4” residue to allow for overwintering of the Trical®. Fertility needs will be greater during the early spring green-up (100+ units N) with only 40-50 units of N for establishment.
  7. Another similar option would be to combine spring and fall Triticale as in Option 5 or add a winter-hardy annual ryegrass (ARG) to further add to yield. This option is called Triticale Plus.Fertility requirements go up with the addition of the ARG. The ARG could be continually harvested throughout the summer, but more likely you would want to move to another crop due to the expected headiness of the ARG. The ARG must then be either Round-Up®-ed or plowed. No short cuts here!
  8. Late summer (August) seedings of Trical® 815/336 can provide both a small fall harvest then a large spring harvest after vernalization.
  9. Plant an annual ryegrass in August for a fall cutting. You can decide if you also want a spring cutting and plant a more winter-hardy variety. Just know that as you move to the next crop, the ARG must be moldboard plowed or burnt off.
  10. An option used in the more Southern parts of the Byron Seed area (Southern Indiana and Illinois, Kentucky Tennessee and Missouri) is the sowing of Timothy (Kootenai) as a winter annual. Take a first cutting of great Timothy hay and move on to the next spring seeding.

These solutions can all provide dairy quality forage in a short time. The key to dairy quality is the timing of harvesting. However, the timing will not get away from us as quickly as it might in the spring. Small grains including triticale are not expected to head out in the fall when planted in August in the Upper Midwest if adequate fertility is provided and enough rain occurs. Maximum yield and quality intersect at the flag leaf stage (pre-boot). For the sorghums, harvest time is at 32” tall for AS6402, 38” for AS9301 and at soft dough stage for the forage sorghums. For the Master Graze, harvest is best at tasseling. If these rules are followed each of these crops will be very high in NDF-d and approach or beat corn silage energy. For the Timothy, you will have some of the best dry
cow forage you ever fed. And lastly, for the Annual Ryegrass, at the pre-boot stage, ARG will make some of the sweetest grass that can be found. NDF-d’s of these grasses can approach or beat 70%.

As for yield, the crops that are in the 45 to 60 day harvesting category will all produce between 1½ to two tons of dry matter. If these same crops are harvested for heifer feed, many especially Trical® can double these yields. The longer crops such as forage sorghum (5 to 9 tons DM) and Master Graze (4 to 5 tons DM) are very productive, if you have enough time and sunshine.

Repairing Winter-Damaged Pastures – by Dennis Brown

My Pasture is winter injured. Now what? This fall and winter has been very hard on pastures due to the longer than average grazing along with the wet weather and no frozen ground:

  • In a square foot area when grasses are 3 to 6 inches tall, you should not see more than 20% soil. Check this in multiple locations within the same field.
  • If the injured stand is to be grazed in spring, graze conservatively to let the stand recover before turning livestock onto pastures.
  • Thin grass-based pastures can be inter seeded at any time in the stands life with other grasses and clovers.
  • Fertilization and weed control of the existing injured stand may be sufficient in improving the pasture to meet grower needs.
  • A more productive grass and/or legume may be added to a thinned pasture or injured area. For more severely damaged pastures, consider no-till renovation on erodible land or complete renovation of the stand where erosion potential is minimal.

Evaluating Winter Damaged Alfalfa – by Dennis Brown

How do I diagnose winter injured Alfalfa?

  • Slow Green Up. One of the most evident results of winter injury is that stands are slow to green up. If other fields in the area are starting to grow and yours are still brown, it is time to check those stands for injury or death.
  • Asymmetrical Growth. Buds for spring growth are formed during the previous fall. If parts of an alfalfa root are killed and others are not, only the living portion of the crown will give rise to new shoots resulting in a crown with shoots on only one side or asymmetrical growth.
  • Uneven Growth. During winter, some buds on a plant crown may be killed and others may not. The uninjured buds will start growth early while the killed buds must be replaced by new buds formed in spring. This will result in shoots of different height on the same plant, with the shoots from buds formed in spring several inches shorter than the shoots arising from fall buds.
  • Root Damage. The best way to diagnose winter injury is by digging up plants (4 to 6 inches deep) and examining the roots. Healthy roots should be firm and white in color with little evidence of root rot. Winter killed roots will have a gray, water-soaked appearance early, just after soils thaw. Once water leaves the root, the tissue will become brown, dehydrated and stringy. If the root is soft and water can be easily squeezed from it, or is brown, dry and stringy, it is most likely winter-killed. Also, if 50% or more of the root is blackened from root rot, the plant will most likely die during spring green up or later in the year.

My alfalfa stand is winter injured. Now what?

Winter injured stands require different management than healthy stands if they are to stay in production. If winter injury is evident consider the following:

  • Determine yield potential. Potential yield of an alfalfa stand may be estimated by determining the number of stems in a square foot area. Once stem number is determined use the following formula to calculate yield potential of that stand:  Yield (tons/acre) = (Stems/ft2 x 0.1) + 0.38

For example, an alfalfa stand with 50 stems/ft2 would have a yield potential of 5.38. Remember, this is potential yield. Soil factors, nutrient deficiency, insects, diseases and many other things may affect the actual yield.

Stem Density to Evaluate Alfalfa Stands
Density (stems/ft^2) Action
Over 55 Stem density not limiting yield
40-55 Stem density limiting yield potential
Under 40 Stem density severly limiting yield, consider replacing
  • If stands are have over 55 stems/ft2 you have goods stands, no yield loss
  • If stands are between 40 to 55 stems/ft2 and under 4 years old consider adding Freedom Red Clover, Lofa or Perun Festolium, or Green Spirit Italian Ryegrass if the stand will be kept 2-3 years
  • If stands are less than 40 stems/ft2 rotate into a corn, spring annual or summer annual crop.

Why “GrassWorks®” Grazing Mix? – by Daniel Olson

Grazing research has indicated that one of the most important factors in pasture productivity and longevity is grass residue. Because grass stores most of its carbohydrates above the ground, and because it relies on photosynthesis to build those reserves, we should place a high value on residue.

What part does pasture palatability play in grass residue management? In monocultures, decreased palatability may result in reduced dry matter intakes, but residue can be managed very effectively. However, in poly-cultures residue management is much more complex. Animal preferences for different species can frustrate even the most experienced graziers.

In a trial we did on our farm a few years ago, we tried to measure the palatability of different grass species and give each a palatability index. Prior to the first grazing of spring, six different grass species were identified and measured. Then, after the grazing event, residues were measure again and averaged and a palatability index was given to each. In this trial, 2” of residue was considered 100% utilization and anything less was the percentage of what was grazed off the individual species. The grasses averaged 12” high at first grazing.

We then tracked these species for a second grazing event 30 days later. What we discovered is that the increased residue in some species broadened the palatability spread of the following grazing. This is probably because of over-grazing the more palatable species, thus delaying their development for the next grazing event.

Over time, we could imagine that the more palatable species will be “grazed out” while the less preferred will thrive. While I believe that poly-cultures are important, my experience has been that pasture intakes go down, in many cases, because the cows exhaust resources searching for, and overgrazing, the most palatable species.

So, if pasture residue is important, [which it is,] shouldn’t we use grass species with comparable palatability to prevent the over-grazing of the most favorable grasses? I feel this has been a greatly overlooked aspect of pasture blends that has set many pastures, cows and farmers up for failure. We should avoid blends that have grasses of varying palatability together, such as Soft Leaf Tall Fescue and Ryegrass. If you want to plant Tall Fescue for agronomic reasons, (say droughty, sandy soil), plant it in a monoculture, or possibly with a legume.

Meadow Fescue and Festulolium work very well together in the Midwest and Northeast and their palatability’s are very compatible. This is why we used them as the main components in this new, exciting blend. This is a pasture mix that you can recommend with confidence and will give them good, consistent quality with easy to manage palatability indexes. The Festulolium component gives quick establishment that diminishes the need for a nurse crop, while the Meadow Fescue and white clover give longevity to the mix.

You will also have the backing of GrassWorks Inc., the largest grazing education association in the Midwest, and NRCS who have endorsed this mix as something they want their farmers to be planting.

Managing Alfalfa in the Fall – by Chad Hale

Fall Cutting Management

Every fall we get asked with the same question – when should I cut my alfalfa? We are probably all familiar with the idea of a ‘no-cut period’, usually sometime in or around September for most of us, when we have been told not to cut alfalfa.

Of course the exact timing varies by location, but a little explanation might help you lead your customers through this question by being that local expert we keep talking about.

Fall is the time when our perennial forage plants are preparing for next spring’s growth. For alfalfa, that means stuffing the roots with as many carbohydrates as possible before winter sets in. When it comes to timing the last harvest, we have to do our best not to diminish those carbohydrate reserves. Those who cut in late August/Early September are banking on having enough warm weather to grow 6-8 inches of regrowth which will capture enough sunlight to fill the roots up for the winter. Poor fall growing conditions can occasionally stifle growth enough so that adequate growth doesn’t occur. At the other end of the spectrum are the growers who cut for the last time in October after the plants would typically be shutting down. An extended fall growing season can cause just enough regrowth to be harmful to stands given this treatment.

On average, either strategy can work. If alfalfa has adequate time and conditions to regrow, a late summer or early fall cutting is not harmful. Likewise, cutting off all the growth at the end of the season is not harmful either. The danger occurs when the plants expend energy putting out their initial regrowth, and then a killing frost comes. The plants actually had to deplete root reserves to put out those leaves and that energy was not replaced by photosynthesis. That leaves the plant vulnerable to winter energy and those plants won’t be able to jump out of dormancy as fast when spring comes, reducing the first-harvest yield. In one of those start and stop springs with several freeze-thaw cycles, the plant may try to initiate growth a couple of times and run out of energy completely.

The time for the early fall cutting has passed, but there may still be time for a late fall cut without much regrowth occurring. Recent research out of Canada points out that in more precise terms, early fall cut stands need to accumulate 500 growing ° days to refill root reserves. If late fall cut stands accumulate no more than 200 growing ° days, so little regrowth will occur that it will not draw down root reserves. It’s those fields that accumulate somewhere between 200-500 growing ° days that may need attention this spring. To calculate growing ° days, see the example at the end of this article. Your Byron Seed Territory Manager should be able to help you access local weather data.

Example of Growing ° Days (GDD) for alfalfa
The alfalfa calculation uses a base number of 41 °s F because very little growth occurs below that temperature. For our example, let’s assume the high temperature today was 62 and the low was 48.
62 + 48 = 110 110/2 = 55 ° average temperature for the day. 55 °s minus the 41 ° base = 14 growing ° days for that day.
Perform this calculation for every day from the last cutting until the first day a killing frost of 25 °s occurs

Fall Fertility

Another important factor for getting alfalfa prepared for winter is having adequate soil fertility, especially Potassium. Potassium actually acts as antifreeze inside the plant by lowering the freezing point of the fluid inside the plant. It’s the same principle as salt water not freezing as quickly as plain water. The attached graph shows the difference a fall application of Potassium can make over the life of the stand. You can see that the stand that received Potassium fertilizer every year stayed dense, while the one without fertility faded out. When you consider how much Potassium is removed in each ton of hay, it stands to reason that the soil can become depleted fairly quickly.

Spring Pasture Fertility Practices – by Dennis Brown

Soil nutrients in a pasture cycle through soil organisms, pasture plants, and grazing livestock. Proper management can enhance the nutrient cycle, increase productivity, and reduce costs. Two practical indicators of soil health are the number of earthworms and the percentage of organic matter in the soil.

A diversity of pasture plants growing on healthy soils use sunlight and the nutrients in the soil to effectively produce quality forage. Paddock design and stocking density can also affect the efficiency of nutrient cycling in a pasture system. Adding fertilizer, based on soil tests, balances the soil’s mineral composition, resulting in better plant and animal growth and increased soil health. Correct pasture management can effectively increase soil fertility through understanding the effects of the plants and animals living in and on the soil. Not only can soil organisms generate mineral nutrients or make them available, but these same minerals can also be recycled several times in a growing season, if the soil ecosystem is healthy and plant cover is optimal. With good management, nutrients can recycle quickly with minimal losses to air and water. Less fertilizer will be required over time, and this means increased profitability for the entire farm.

Producers create a healthy soil through good soil management and smart grazing strategies. Good managers will soil test regularly and apply fertilizers, lime as needed. They monitor the results of these decisions and make note of their observations for future reference. Understanding forages and adjust stocking rates and paddock rest periods. Also making, harvesting and seeding decisions to maintain and improve their soil and pasture resources.

Here is how forages use minerals and nutrients.


  • Soil PH needs to be 6.6 to 6.8 and base saturation needs to be 70% plus
  • Helps with the movement and absorption of phosphorus, nitrogen, and magnesium.
  • Benefits bacteria, fungi, protozoa and other soil life so important for nutrient cycling.
  • Releases important trace and growth nutrients by its pH-altering effect.
  • Helps clover, which requires twice the calcium of grass. Abundant calcium is necessary for clover nodulation.
  • Creates soil tilth and structure so that air and water can move more freely through soil by causing clay particles to stick together. Soil must be able to breathe to grow great grass.
  • Allows pastures to be more droughts tolerant
  • Improves the palatability of grass and clover, makes the pasture softer for animals to graze, and lessens grass-pulling in new stands.
  • Helps prevent weeds


  • Directly affect forage crude protein levels in grasses, with much less effect on crude protein levels in legumes.
  • Greatly increases forage dry matter yield
  • Within reason, the greater the nitrogen fertilizer applied the higher the forage grass crude protein; there is, of course, an upper limit to this affect.
  • Nitrogen fertility levels should be based on realistic yield expectations however, and forage crude protein levels should be managed by plant maturity at harvest, whether by haying or grazing management


  • Soil level for adequate is 150 ppm
  • Deficient or low potassium fertility levels will most assuredly reduce forage growth, e.g., can become first limiting nutrient and decrease overall yields.
  • Potassium uptake can be in luxury amounts by most forage species, typically, plants will accumulate 2 to 20 times sufficient levels of potassium when it is available in the soil.


  • Soil level for adequate is 30 ppm
  • Low soil phosphorus can be growth- limiting.
  • Phosphorus is typically not consumed in luxury amounts as is potassium and will generally show on forage analysis as 0.2 to 0.3% composition on a dry matter basis.
  • Phosphorus may be low enough in forage plant tissue that it becomes deficient in the grazing livestock diet.
  • When phosphorus is this low in the soil, plant growth will most definitely be reduced.
  • Soil phosphorus levels must be adjusted for adequate forage growth.

How Soon Can I Grow More Forage? – by Tom Kilcer, CCA, Advanced AG Systems

This season has drastically reduced the forage supply. The shortage will rebound-impact the forage supplies of next year and the year after. Here are steps you can take to quickly get more forage on the acres you work, starting with the earliest return of forage:

Nitrogen on >50% grass fields. Applying 75 – 80 lbs of nitrogen (plus sulfur – 40-0-0-4S -if no manure the past year) can easily double the first cutting yield off of these tradi-tionally marginally managed fields. Harvested a week to 10 days earlier than alfalfa, they can give you forage to support the highest levels of milk production and protein to reduce soy cost.

Oats with new seedings. An old practice, oats planted with the legume seeding and harvested at flag leaf stage, will give several tons of very high quality forage by mid – late June. Allowed to go to early soft dough, it will produce excellent forage for heifers or, if no manure was used, for dry cows.

Winter grains as forage. An increasing number of farms last fall grew winter for-age, especially triticale. Applying nitrogen and harvesting at flag leaf stage, can give 8 si-lage tons/a of the highest quality forage possible in the Northeast at the same time as early grass. A short season, high energy forage crop can be grown immediately after it. A similar double crop option can be used for fields of run out haycrop. Apply nitrogen, take an early haycrop harvest, and then follow with shorter season energy forage.

Short season energy forages can be short season corn, the new short sea-son bmr sorghums, bmr sorghum-Sudans, bmr Sudangrass or teff. Both teff and the sor-ghums require warm soils and weather for successful stand establishment and growth. They are not a cool season crop.

Teff will produce a cutting 47 days after planting. Requiring only 50 lbs of nitrogen/cutting, it produces forages equal to high quality cool season grasses. A critical step is to move the cutter bar up to 3 – 4 inches as the next cutting has to be grown from the remain-ing leaf tissue. Using this system, 2.75 tons of dry matter has been produced in as short as 17 days after the first cutting.

The next earliest forage supply is BMR6 Sudan grasses at 45 days. BMR Sudan-grass is faster emerging, and higher quality than Sorghum Sudan and yields just as much. The smaller stem makes it easier to dry. Both Sudangrass and sorghum-Sudangrass work well in rotational grazing. The down side is the new BMR6 Sudangrass seed is in limited supply.

BMR6 sorghum-Sudan is taller and first harvest is the middle of July. Sorghum-Sudan is only for managers who pay attention to details. It needs to be harvested at about 3 feet in height. Taller crops maintain their quality, but there is a dramatic increase in dry matter yield and the amount of water to remove. This crop grows 3 inches a day, thus the necessity of watching it closely. Higher cutting height will speed re-growth of sorghum-Sudan. Intermeshing rollers are far superior to flails in drying this crop for silage. It will produce 2 – 3 cuts a year. Harvested correctly, Miner Institute research has found it to produce the same amount of milk as good quality corn silage in a high forage diet.

Short season corn (< 85 day in Albany, NY area) planted as the first corn in the spring; barring any prolonged dry spell or excessive cloudy weather that delay maturity; produces mature corn silage by the begin-ning of August. Short season corn produces a shorter plant and so less potential silage yield. We have found that much of the yield loss can be off-set by planting at much higher plant populations (40,000 plants/a pro-duced 19.6 tons/a in 2011). A major concern is many short season corns are bred from flint type endosperm. This produces very hard kernels that may forage test well, but a significant portion of the energy is undigested in the manure. This can be offset by planting short season varieties that have floury or soft endosperm. Thus, whether processed or not, the cows will get a greater portion of the energy the grain contains. Several compa-nies produce these silage varieties. If the harvest is early enough, a fall crop of spring oats could be sequen-tially grown (see below).

A potential new crop is 83 day BMR dwarf sorghum discussed in the last Crop Soil News. It only requires one cutting and harvested at soft dough, can be direct chopped without the necessity of drying like sorghum-Sudans. Note: This is not a crop for cool seasons. Sorghum likes heat. It is critical that your drill or corn planter be able to plant only 8 – 10 lbs of seed/acre. Higher populations, like excessive high populations in corn, will lodge. More research on this crop is being conducted at the Cornell Valatie Research farm. If you try some only do a small acreage until you get experience with this crop.

Double crop winter forage. All of the above high energy crops can be planted after harvesting winter forage such as triticale. They can then allow subsequent winter forage be planted again after the short season energy crop, continuing the high yield rotation. Most of the corn last season yielded 12 – 20 tons/acre. High population short season corn yielded 19.6 ton/acre and the sorghum 19.3 tons/acre. Adding 8 tons of silage/acre from the winter triticale, gave us 27 total tons from the same acreage in one lousy year. The double crop reduces the risk from one crop getting decimated; spreads the work load, and protects the soil on HEL land by profitable forage cover crop, and opens opportunities to spread manure.

August Oats: Planting grain type oats at 4-5 bu/a at the beginning of August will give 2 – 4 tons of dry matter at the end of September. This forage has tested at over 4,000 lbs of milk/ton – a very highly digestible energy and protein source. In our research, the yield and protein levels justified 12,000 gallons of manure/acre, immediately incorporated, to meet the nitrogen needs. (low P soil test). With short days, cool temperatures, and very high yields, it will need to be tedded in order to drop the moisture to ensiling levels.

August Oats Plus: In the above fall oat research, we simultane-ous planted 80 to 100 lbs of winter triticale with the oats. By harvesting the oats at greater than 3 inch cutting height, the winter triticale was able to re-grow before winter and thus give another early very high quality forage harvest the next spring.

Each of these crops can give you a forage boost. They take some planning and effort but the reward of increased profitability from high (>60%) forage diets is well known.

Alfalfa Stand Evaluation and Renovation – by Chad Hale and Ernest Weaver

We typically preach that you should evaluate stands soon after they come out of dormancy.

In years like this when it is raining all the time and tornado warnings are all too common, maybe you had other things to do besides rate your stands. The good news is that stands can be evaluated at any time of year. After first cutting when the regrowth is about 6 inches tall or more is a good time to evaluate stands because if you detect a problem, you will have time to act to correct the problem.

The rules are still the same no matter when you evaluate stands. Work done at the University of Wisconsin and endorsed by universities all across the country suggests that rather than doing plant counts like we used to do, the better way to assess alfalfa stands is by counting stems. The table shows stem counts per square foot required to maintain top production in your alfalfa field.

Stems/Square Foot Effect on Yield Action
55+ Yield not limited None
40-55 Some reduction likely Watch for further decline
39 or less Noticeable yield reduction Renovate stand or intereseed with grass

If you count more than 55 stems per square foot, you are in great shape! If you count between 40 and 55, put that field on a watch list and start thinking about what you might do with that field in a year or two because it is starting to decline. If you count 39 stems or less, you need to act. Depending on your whole farm plan and the time of year when you notice the decline, you have several options. If you do stem counts after first cutting and notice they are low, it may not be the best time to interseed grasses. Some readers in the upper Midwest could possibly interseed grass but for the majority of producers cool season grasses would have to be put in later in the summer. Your best choices will be warm season annuals. Here are a few options to think about:

OPTION 1 – For dry hay, plant about 10-12 pounds per acre of AS 9301, our new BMR 6 dry-stalk Sudan grass. Planting at this low rate will not completely shade out alfalfa so you will still have a thin stand going into fall that you can interseed cool season grass into. Make sure your soil temperatures are high enough (60 degrees and rising). If you were lucky enough to find a harvest window in early May for first cutting, your soil may be too cool after first cutting so you may have to wait until the second cutting comes off.

OPTION 2 – Another dry hay option if you have a no till drill that will handle small seed and good press wheels, is teff. Remember the rules of teff – firm seedbed and shallow plantingdepth! Also keep in mind with teff you will be cutting every 21 days or less, which will really be tough on your alfalfa plants, so don’t count on having much of an alfalfa stand going into the fall.

OPTION 3 – If you really need significant tonnage and only want one harvest, consider AF 7401, the dwarf forage sorghum in the southern half of the Midwest. Compared to Sudan grass, forage sorghum is a slower starter and it won’t like competition as well. The most effective way we found to plant AF 7401 is to let the alfalfa come back and get about a foot of regrowth and then spray it out and plant the AF 7401. Tonnage and quality will be outstanding and the sprayed alfalfa will give you some Nitrogen credits to grow the sorghum crop.

OPTION 4 – Plant Master Graze corn. We have another article about Master Graze in this newsletter and one time to introduce this crop is after first crop alfalfa. You will need to control the alfalfa first by spraying or plowing. If you are short of corn silage or did not get all your corn planted because of this wet spring we are having, Master Graze gives you an opportunity to get 4-5 tons of dry matter in around 60 days. You will then have time to sow another forage crop in late summer following Master Graze. Remember that this is a corn plant and needs to be treated like one. Make sure the soil temperature is 60 degrees for Master Graze as well.

With each of the 4 options above, there are some common things to remember:

  • Soil temperature needs to be 60 degrees and rising. If the soil temperature is too low, wait until just after second cutting to plant.
  • A thin stand of alfalfa and a thin alfalfa stand full of weeds or grass are not the same thing. If you have a lot of invasive grasses or weeds in your stand, you will need to control them to get the best results of the 4 options above. (NOTE: if you have planted a mixture of alfalfa and high quality late maturing grasses, thinning alfalfa is not that big an issue. Grasses like orchardgrass and fescue will give tonnage and are at least as high quality as the alfalfa).
  • These options get you through the summer and produce high quality forage. However, when fall comes, you will have to either renovate the stand or add something like cool season grasses to keep production high.

Evaluating Corn Stands – by Dennis Brown, CCA

Uneven emergence is one of the leading causes of yield reduction in corn today. Uneven emergence is caused by the following:

  • Variability of seeding depth
  • Seed-to-soil coverage
  • Seedbed moisture, seedbed temperature
  • Damage from soil-borne insects and diseases

Uneven plant spacing within the row is another yield reduction problem in corn management. These are due to problems related to the planter:

  • Worn, or misadjusted seed meter components, lack of seed lubricant
  • Poorly lubricated chains and fittings
  • Mismatch of seed size with seed meters or seed plates
  • Excessive planting speed.

Stand losses due to pests or weather often result not only in lower plant densities, but also in unevenly spaced survivors. Corn that initially emerges and develops uniformly through early leaf stages can take a turn for the worse around the three- to four-leaf stage if the kernel or mesocotyl is damaged by insect or disease prior to the successful development of nodal roots from the crown area of the plant.

Final plant population is the factor that determines what our season-ending yield will be. Most hybrids today require above 27,000 plants per acre to reach expected yield and many are increasing plant populations to 36,000 or more. This is because they are determinate ear hybrids. Flex hybrids on the other hand are more forgiving and will produce good yields with final plant stands below 24,000 plants per acre. It is important to know what the ideal population range is for the hybrids you plant in order to set the planter.

In order to achieve adequate final plant populations, seed spacing is very important. Below is a table that shows what the space between each seed should be with regards to row spacing and desired planting population. Remember that 5-15% of the seed you plant will not germinate. Always read the tags to see what germination is and adjust you planting populations accordingly to final population goals. Replant only when stands drop below a hybrids ideal range of population.

Seeds/Acre 20,000 22,000 24,000 26,000 28,000 30,000 32,000 34,000
Row Width     Inches Between Seeds      
15″ 20.0 19.0 17.4 16.1 14.9 13.9 13.1 12.3
20″ 15.7 14.3 13.1 12.1 11.2 10.5 9.8 9.2
30″ 10.5 9.5 8.7 8.0 7.5 7.0 6.5 6.1
36″ 8.7 7.9 7.3 6.7 6.2 5.8 5.4 5.1
38″ 8.3 7.5 6.9 6.3 5.9 5.5 5.2 4.9
40″ 7.8 7.1 6.5 6.0 5.6 5.5 4.9 4.6

Soil Organic Matter – by J. Lickacz and D. Penney

What is Organic Matter?

Soil organic matter consists of a variety of components. These include, in varying proportions and many Intermediate stages:

  • raw plant residues and microorganisms (1 to 10 per cent)
  • “active” organic traction (10 to 40 per cent)
  • resistant or stable organic matter (40 to 60 per cent) also referred to as humus.

Raw plant residues, on the surface, help reduce surface wind speed and water runoff. Removal, incorporation or burning of residues predisposes the soil to serious erosion.

The “active” and some of the resistant soil organic components, together with microorganisms (especially fungi) are involved in binding small soil particles into larger aggregates. Aggregation is important for good soil structure, aeration, water infiltration and resistance to erosion and crusting.

The resistant or stable fraction of soil organic matter contributes mainly to nutrient holding capacity (cation exchange capacity) and soil color. This fraction of organic matter decomposes very slowly and therefore has less influence on soil fertility than the “active” organic fraction.

Organic matter in soil serves several functions. From a practical agricultural standpoint, it is important for two main reasons. First as a “revolving nutrient bank account”; and second, as an agent to improve soil structure, maintain tilth, and minimize erosion.

As a revolving nutrient bank account, organic matter serves two main functions:

  • Since soil organic matter is derived mainly from plant residues, it contains all of the essential plant nutrients. Accumulated organic matter, therefore, is a storehouse of plant nutrients. Upon decomposition, the nutrients are released in a plant-available form.
  • The stable organic fraction (humus) adsorbs and holds nutrients in a plant

Organic matter does not add any “new’ plant nutrients but releases nutrients in a plant available form through the process of decomposition. In order to maintain this nutrient cycling system, the rate of addition from crop residues and manure must equal the rate of decomposition.

If the rate of addition is less than the rate of decomposition, soil organic matter will decline and, conversely if the rate of addition is greater than the rate of decomposition, soil organic matter will increase. The term steady state has been used to describe a condition where the rate of addition is equal to the rate of decomposition.

Fertilizer can contribute to the maintenance of this revolving nutrient bank account by increasing crop yields and consequently the amount of residues returned to the soil.

Organic Matter in Virgin and Cultivated Soils
The amount of soil organic matter characteristic of virgin and cultivated soils in a report from Canada is shown in Table 1. Cultivation generally has resulted in a 30 to 50 per cent loss of organic matter. The same trend holds here in the Midwest.

Table 1. Organic Matter in Virgin and Cultivated Soils (per cent)
Soil Zone Virgin Cultivated
Brown 3 – 4 2 – 3
Dark Brown 4 – 5 3 – 4
Black 6 – 10 4 – 6
Dark Gray 4 – 5 2 – 3
Gray 1 -2 1 – 2


Before our soils were cultivated, they had achieved a “steady state”. In most of our prairie soils, the increased rate of decomposition associated with cultivation, combined with the low rates of crop residue addition associated with crop-fallow rotations has caused a fairly rapid decline in soil organic matter. The rate of decline
decreases with time as the amount of total soil organic matter decreases and particularly as the “active” organic fraction is depleted.

Effects of Organic Matter Decline

Loss of organic matter is often identified as one of the main factors contributing to declining soil productivity, but it is misleading to equate a loss in soil organic matter with a loss in soil productivity.

Soil organic matter contributes to soil productivity in several ways, but there is no direct quantitative relationship between soil productivity and total soil organic matter. In fact, it has been the decline in organic matter that has contributed to the productivity of the crop-fallow system. In other words, nutrients that were stored for many years in the form of organic matter have been used for plant growth and not replaced.

This decline in organic matter has resulted in the release of large amounts of plant nutrients, particularly nitrogen. For example, a decrease in soil organic matter of 2 per cent releases about 2,400 lb/ac of nitrogen. If this decline occurred over a 60 year period, an average of 40 lb/ac/yr of plant-available nitrogen has come from the soil organic matter. We therefore view prairie soils which had relatively high levels of organic matter as being nitrogen fertile, but this fertility could only be attained under a management system that allowed for organic matter to decline.

Insofar as organic matter contributes to improved soil physical properties (e.g., tilth, aggregation, moisture holding capacity and resistance to erosion) increasing soil organic matter will generally result in increased soil productivity. But on many soils, suitable soil physical properties occur at relatively low levels of organic matter (2-4 per cent).

A level of organic matter higher than required to produce suitable physical properties is beneficial in that the soil has a greater buffering and nutrient holding capacity, but it does not contribute directly to soil productivity. If soils are managed so organic matter is not declining (steady-state), soils higher in organic matter (e.g., 8 per cent) are not inherently more productive or fertile than those that have less organic matter (e.g., 5 per cent).

To equate the ability to supply nutrients with total soil organic matter is not valid. The “active” fraction of organic matter is a more reliable indicator of soil fertility than is total soil organic matter. In cultivated soil, the “active” fraction is influence mainly by previous management.

Soil organic matter cannot be increased quickly even when management practices that conserve soil organic matter are adopted. The increased addition of organic matter associated with continuous cropping, and the production of higher crop yields, are accompanied by an increase in the rate of decomposition. Moreover, only a small fraction of crop residues added to soil remains as soil organic matter.

After an extended period of time, the return of all crop residues and the use of forages in rotations with grain crops may significantly increase soil organic matter, particularly, the “active” fraction.

Managing Soil Organic Matter

There have been vast changes in the nature of agricultural production. In the past, farms were small, and much of what was produced was consumed on the farm. This system allowed for the limited removal of soil nutrients since there was an opportunity to return most of the nutrients back to the land.

The advent of the internal combustion engine, migration from rural to urban communities, increasing farm size and specialization in production have resulted in a system of production where there is greater removal of plant nutrients from the soil and less opportunity for nutrient cycling.

Maintenance of organic matter for the sake of maintenance alone is not a practical approach to farming. It is more realistic to use a management system that will give sustained profitable production.

The greatest source of soil organic matter is the residue contributed by current crops. Consequently, crop yield and type, method of handling residues and frequency of tillage are all important factors. Ultimately, soil organic matter must be maintained at a level necessary to maintain soil tilth. The effects of specific management practices are discussed below.

Crop rotations

The value of forage crops in rotations with row crops has long been recognized. Several long-term crop rotation studies conducted in Western Canada have shown that crop rotations involving perennial forages tend to stabilize soil organic matter at a higher level than crop rotations, especially those involving summerfallow.

The beneficial effects of perennial forages are the result of:

  • a more extensive root system and crop aftermath contributing more organic matter to the soil,
  • the fibrous nature of the root system of perennial grasses. These are particularly effective as a binding agent in soil aggregation,
  • Nitrogen fertility enhancement by the growth of legumes,
  • increased permeability of dense subsoils because of the deep penetrating tap roots of perennial legumes, especially alfalfa.
  • a reduced rate of organic matter decomposition in the absence of tillage.


Fertilizers will generally increase soil organic matter because the increased crop growth returns larger amounts of residues to the soil.

Data obtained from the Breton Plots in Manitoba is summarized in Figure 3. The increase in organic matter is less than what might be expected with current farming practices since all the straw had been removed from the plots. To determine the fertilizer effect, two fertilizer treatments were averaged, one involving a low rate of nitrogen and sulphur and another involving a low rate of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulphur.

One would expect that with higher rates of fertilization, higher yielding varieties, and the return of all crop residues, the effect of fertilizers on organic matter would be greater than that shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Effect of fertilizer on soil organic matter.


Legume plowdown has received considerable attention in recent years as an alternative to the use of nitrogen fertilizers. Strictly as a source of nitrogen, the value of a legume plowdown is questionable. The amount of nitrogen fixed by a legume is dependent upon the type of legume, the amount of vegetative growth, the nature of the soil and environmental conditions. As a source of organic matter, legume plowdown is valuable; however, perennial forages are more effective than legume plowdowns for increasing soil organic matter.


The cultivation of prairie soils has generally resulted in a decline in organic matter of 30 to 50 per cent. A product of this decline has been the release of large amounts of plant nutrients, particularly nitrogen. Crop rotations with a high frequency of tillage have resulted in the release of large amounts of nutrients from organic matter stores. Depending on the farming system, some of these nutrients have been available for plant growth and some have been lost due to leaching or soil erosion.

More frequent or continuous cropping, less frequent tillage, the production of high yields and the return of crop residues will help to maintain soil organic matter at a satisfactory level. Rotations including perennial forages and cover crops are effective for maintaining or increasing soil organic matter.

This article is adapted in part from a publication of the Alberta Department of Agriculture and Rural Development by J. Lickacz and D. Penny in the Plant Industry Division.

Sorghum From A Nutritionist’s Point of View – by Larry Hawkins

With the advent of BMR Gene 6 hybrids, Alta have moved sorghums from the “just heifer” feed category to the top of the “dairy” quality feed category (and made it even better heifer feed!). With the decreased lignin and increased digestibility, Alta BMR Gene 6 now competes with corn silage in both yield (in many geographical locations) and energy.

 In warmer climates, such as the lower half of Byron’s trade area (KY, TN & MO plus southern IN, OH and IL), sorghums compete with corn silage head to head in yield. In the cooler Upper Midwest (South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan), the combination of the sorghum and the winter crop (Trical® 336 or 815) provides very competitive DM yields to straight corn silage. These yields come with added benefit of all the advantages of using a cover crop. This includes having roots growing in your soil virtually all year around, improvements in organic matter and soil structure plus much more. Other advantages of a sorghum rotation include their ability to produce a ton of silage with half the rain or irrigation as corn plus their ability to thrive in hot weather. In the upper Midwest, this can also be their downfall, i.e., if the summers are cool and wet, sorghums will underperform.

When feeding sorghums for the first time, you will notice a very high palatability due to the high sugar levels. Cows will love it and prefer it to almost any other forage. Sorghum-Sudan (SS) which is cut several times during the growing season and are never allowed to head, will have from 10 to 16% CP depending fertility and relative maturity. Sudan Hybrids (SH), also a multi-cut forage will produce CP’s 4 to 5 percentage units higher than SS. Forage Sorghums (FS) can be 10% CP, 10% Starch (they should be harvested at soft dough stage) and 10% sugar. These protein levels become significant when you consider that sorghums are equal or higher in energy than corn silage with the extra protein!

The nutritional side of sorghums requires some understanding as the plants will produce both high NDF and high 5- and 6-Carbon sugar. A nutritionist, who looks at a typical sorghum feed test, often will be put off by the NDF levels. The main problem is that the energy value (not a test, but a calculation) will appear to be very low. There are at least two culprits. First is the high NDF value, and second is the fact that, as of yet, forage testing labs have small numbers of sorghum samples and an even smaller number of BMR Gene 6 samples, plus rarely are the two sorghum types properly labeled. The result is that NIR values for NDF-d are suspect (read “low”). This makes for a lower than accurate appraisal of the real energy value for the BMR Gene 6 silage or hay.

What is the solution? Rick Grant at the Miner Institute in Chazy, NY says that the real energy value of sorghum products can be arrived at by adding 0.10 to 0.15 units to the NEL calculated on the feed test. This would mean that the calculated value, 0.64 NE L, e.g., would actually be from 0.76 to 0.79. These adjusted energy levels would now make the proper ration. So the question now becomes should the addition be 0.10 or 0.15 or somewhere in between? The solution is found by looking at the ADF. ADF is directly related to maturity at cutting. If the ADF is anywhere from 28 to 35, the proper NEL addition is 0.15. If the ADF is higher, use 0.10 or 0.12. Obviously, after a few trials, your nutritionist will gain confidence in these adjustments.

We are looking for a time when feed testing labs and sorghum companies will have invested enough effort (in vitro or in situ testing) to gain more accurate numbers for sorghum energy and digestibility to establish the difference between older BMR types and Gene 6. Until that time the aforementioned adjustment methods will get you very close to the proper diet. Our wish for accurate sorghum assays will probably not happen until labs unify their methods for such things as sugar, NDF-d, in haylage and corn silage plus starch availability in corn silage so that testing results will be more comparable from one lab to another. Obviously, it surely won’t happen until sorghums become as popular on dairies as they deserve to be given their yield and feeding characteristics.

The last caveat for sorghum is their chance to contain either 1) Nitrate (NO3) or 2) Prussic acid (PA). In regards to Nitrate, fertilizer needs for sorghums are from 1 to 1 ¼ pounds of N per growing day. This means for SS and SH, the first harvest is in 45 days and any subsequent harvest is in 30 days. These crops should be fertilized accordingly. The first application can be manure (which will not all be available for the cut); however. it is better to use urea or ammonium sulfate for the subsequent applications using best guess for how much N will be left from the manure (rain, etc.). For the forage sorghums, the same rate of N will be needed (1 to 1¼#’s per growing day), but now you must calculate for the growing season which is from 85 to 116 days depending on the relative maturity of the FS that you choose. The exciting thing for the Upper Midwest is that now there are forage sorghums as short as 85 days! Following these recommendations for N, will almost certainly remove most of danger of NO3. The only warning is to watch when harvesting sorghum shortly after a drought has broken. The rain causes a sudden uptake of NO3 which cannot be converted in to protein quickly enough. Fermenting the sorghum will detoxify approximately ½ of the NO3.

Prussic acid is formed in any sorghum plant after a freeze. Harvesting the sorghum and allowing it to ferment will dissipate all of the PA. If you are grazing, a more careful process should be followed. If the frost was a complete killing frost, allowing the cows back into the sorghum pasture after 5 days will be safe. If it was a light frost, more Prussic acid will be formed at the next frost until the plant is no longer vegetative. It is obviously wise to avoid night grazing during potential frost events. One way to test the absence of PA is to send a cow that kicks into the pasture and if she is still upright in the morning, the crop is OK! If she isn’t she was a kicker anyway. (Just kidding!). However, Prussic acid poisoning is very rare since the causative factors have become very well understood.

Debt Reduction and Energy Independence-Econ for a Dairy Farm – by Larry Hawkins

Debt reduction and energy independence are two hot topics in our country as I write this article. I have about given up that our president and congress will ever get this figured out. However, I am going to make an attempt to explain debt reduction (or purchased input reduction) and energy independence as it applies to your livestock operation.

Just a little context adjustment to get us started. As I started in the dairy nutrition business (ages ago) carbohydrates were in the backseat compared to the consideration given to protein. There were some rather obvious reasons why. If we shorted a cow or herd on protein, little was available in reserve and the cow (steer, heifer) had less production (gain) almost immediately. If energy was shorted, at least in the case of milk production, a cow could use fat off her back to produce to her genetic potential at least for a little while. If we had used the term at that time, she would appear to have a high Dairy Efficiency (#’s Fat Corrected Milk divided by #’s actually eaten). Of course, that would be a false victory. As time went on, we fiddled with bypass protein (BP), often adding too much BP (if a little is a good thing…) and then lowering the rumen production of almost perfect microbial protein. Currently, we have made huge gains in protein nutrition as we are now predicting (because we don’t actually know for sure) the delivery of a balance of essential amino acids from the rumen to the lower gut which mirrors her exact needs. We are now balancing high production rations with as little as 16% CP since we are meeting the essential amino acid needs of the cow with fewer excesses.

At some point in this journey, we started to realize three important facts:

  1. Carbohydrates are approximately 70% of almost any ration (or feed test) or about four times greater than CP,  2) Energy takes up far more room in a ration than does any other portion and 3) Maybe these two facts need to be given a lot more consideration. Let’s look at the five parts of a feed ration that provide all the elements of nutrition for the cow:
  2. Fat – a small portion of a feed ration (3 to 5%) and cannot be fed much higher without negative results. It does contain the highest level of energy (˜3X shelled corn), however, we cannot solve energy shortages by simply adding more and more fat.
  3. Ash or minerals – this portion of a ration has no energy.
  4. Protein – inefficient when used for energy source.
  5. Non Fiber Carbohydrates (NFC) – a very important energy source (starch, sugar, pectins), but there is also a limit to how much NFC we can feed to a cow and keep her healthy (acidosis, lameness, low butterfat).
  6. Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) – the other carbohydrate portion, mainly sourced from forage. The greatest chance to feed cows to higher production and still keep them healthy is by feeding higher energy forages. It is the only one of these five that can be increased with positive results (production and health) even if it is only to get the same FCM, but higher herd health.

The key to feeding more forage without getting less milk is to have higher-digestible forages, i.e. more of the forage becomes milk or meat and less becomes manure. Remember, more digestibility means higher energy. Dr. Steve Woodford published an article in the June Wisconsin Assn. of Professional Ag Consultants (WAPAC) June newsletter putting a dollar value on the use of high energy forage compared to using higher protein forages. He concluded that feeding alfalfa haylage (HP)with 1% higher protein, but the same NDF and digestibility increases its value by only $2.50 more per ton in a ration compared to a FeedVal calculation of $5.00/ton. This is due to the increased corn and its high cost relative to protein needed when feeding the HP haylage and maintain the same fiber levels. When a haylage is more digestible (25 points higher Relative Forage Quality (RFQ)), but with the same protein, the forage is worth $50/ton more in a ration due the fact that both corn and protein could be removed from the ration and the Forage/Concentrate Ratio is increased. There would be some costs for the extra forage, however it will be minor compared to the cost of the corn, protein and/or byproducts that could be removed from the ration.

So what is the best way to increase digestibility in haylage? Add modern late-heading European grasses. These grasses are normally 20 to 50 or more percentage units higher in NDF-D than alfalfa and comparable to or higher than corn silage. Because of the grasses’ higher but digestible NDF, rations can become healthier while still supplying the requisite energy. This type of ration also supports higher butterfat production and better rumen health (higher pH)

Probably, the biggest resistance to adding grasses to high producing dairy rations comes from nutritionists who have as their model ration one that is very high in corn silage, 50 to 60 Ibs and even more, complimented with the balance of early-cut alfalfa. This type of ration many times requires feeding straw to maintain a modicum of herd health. It can be like walking a tightrope. These nutritionists will ask, how can we give up the highly soluble protein in alfalfa to feed grass? Here is where a paradigm shift comes to play. They should not trade alfalfa for grass, they will be trading grass for corn, corn silage, byproducts (or straw) and protein! Grass will always be higher in protein than corn and corn silage. If there is one take-home lesson to this article, this is it!

The second question then becomes, how can I give up the yield of corn silage for haylage? Here is what actually happens. When grass is added to your alfalfa fields, yield goes up. There will be more haylage to feed. Most of our clients have found at least one ton dry matter (DM) increase in yield and most times, even more. Therefore, you can feed the same amount of alfalfa, plus the grass. Also, pure tall fescue fields used for nutrient management can have the same high yields as alfalfa/grass, but with a possible 20% crude protein due to the heavy nutrient application.

This article won’t help our government sort out their mess although if they would ask me, I would tell them! However, using high-energy grasses in your forage program can reduce your dependence on corn and so you can either buy less or as some have discovered there is actually a market out there for corn! As far as debt reduction (or purchased-input reduction), grasses, properly formulated in your ration can go a long way toward this goal.

The Economics of Alfalfa-Grass Mixes – by Larry Hawkins

From a time, about forty years ago, when every hayfield contained grasses mixed with alfalfa to the recent past when alfalfa was used almost exclusively, grass alfalfa mixtures are making a mighty reappearance and for one of the same reasons they left!

Grasses left because livestock farmers needed more energy from their hay/haylage and they are coming back for this very same reason! There is a huge difference, of course, in the grasses. Yesterday’s grasses were very early-heading which causes the grass have lower energy. And as grass was removed from most hayfields, grass was ignored by US plant breeders and soon forgotten.

So what has led to the resurgence? In Europe dairy producers largely couldn’t raise alfalfa, so they were “stuck” with grass. In these last forty years their plant breeders worked with grasses (instead of alfalfa) and the result is modern improved grasses that in the main are very late-heading. Remember though when you purchase grass seed from your local purveyor, it probably is some of the same grass that you (or your Dad) could have had forty years ago. Byron Seed specializes in these European grasses from Barenbrug and DLF, two of the major breeding companies in Europe. These companies are the primary sources for the grasses that are viable companions to alfalfa.

When talking to a livestock producer about grass, there are four huge benefits that should impress even the most dedicated alfalfa purist! They are a) yield b) quality, c) herd health and improved crop rotation. A fifth benefit, improved nutrient management opportunities is, at least, important to CAFO farms and as government programs inch upon us, will be important to all. Let’s look at them one at a time.


A huge driver on forage choices is yield as evidenced by the increase in corn silage acres over pure alfalfa. Grass/alfalfa mixes year in and year out shine in yield per acre. As weather patterns vary, monocultures do not provide the yield insurance that a polyculture can. In the Upper Midwest, our choice for the main grass companion to alfalfa is tall fescue (TF), esp. Kora or Byron’s Premium Hay Blend (BPHB) which is Kora and BarElite mixed 50/50. The reason is that TF roots nearly as deep as alfalfa and therefore has close to the same drought tolerance and greater summer production. Besides, when it comes to wet feet and alfalfa does poorly, TF will still do well. University yield trials in Iowa had tall fescues yield as high as 10 DM tons/acre and nearly every entry over 8 tons. Getting to higher alfalfa yields, we see an increase of 1 to 2 tons DM/year when grass is added to alfalfa.

Yield is king because as land prices soar, more tons per acre helps us produce the forage we need on fewer acres, allowing our clients to either buy or rent less ground or produce cash crops on land we already have. (There is a rumor that you can actually sell extra corn and hay!)


It is almost a no-brainer to add grass to alfalfa when you can not only get higher yields, but at the same time get higher quality. Quality in a forage is defined as more digestibility (NDF-d) not by higher Relative Feed Value (RFV). The proper index to look at when judging forage, is Relative Feed Quality (RFQ). This calculation uses all the inputs that the current energy equation uses. RFV merely rewards low fiber and we will visit that subject in the herd health section. At the World Dairy Expo Forage Analysis Super Bowl (FASB) a tremendous statement was made by not only the number of finalists in the Dairy Hay, Dairy Haylage and Dairy Baleage divisions, but also the statistics. There were 26 finalists out of 50 spots that contained grass, plus a majority of the top four spots in each. There were also two categories, Commercial Hay (all finalists were 100% alfalfa) and the Grass Hay (virtually 100% grass). The results when comparing the two—grass had a NDF-d of 73.8% and the best of the best alfalfas averaged about 47%! (See chart below). Also, the pure grass finalists averaged 3175 milk/ton and the pure alfalfas averaged 2950.


Health Feeding more forage to dairy cows is a universally recognized way to increase herd health. The problem is that if the forage energy isn’t high enough to compensate for replacing higher energy concentrates, milk production goes down. Some people recognizing the profit-making opportunities of higher herd health and reproduction are happy with just that. Others who want high production can ramp up digestible forages to a point and maintain overall ration energy. Either way reducing lost milk production from sick cows, avoiding compromised immune response and fewer emergency vet visits are a huge cost reduction for any dairy. Diseases like acidosis, DA’s, lameness, ketosis and poor reproduction can be mitigated by including high energy grasses into the ration. The key to all of these improvements is the ability to raise digestible fiber in the ration with the addition of grass (high energy) rather than straw (low energy) to the alfalfa.

Improved Crop Rotations Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that corn following grass (as a monoculture) was as good or better than corn following soybeans or alfalfa. The reason for this surprising result was the tremendous amount of root biomass that grass provides organic matter to our soils. We know of no other crop that can add organic matter to our soil as quickly as large-rooted grasses such as tall fescue. Obviously, a mixture of grass and alfalfa can be no worse.

Enhanced Nutrient Management for large dairies We know of no common crop with the nutrient uptake capabilities of forage cool-season grasses. With their combination of yield and their thirst for nutrients, grasses will remove more N, P and K per year than any other crop.Added to that, with each harvest, another opportunity presents itself to apply manure, especially liquid manure and low nutrient water.

The Value of Reduced Herd Turnover – by Rick Tamm

When we talk about feeding high energy forages, we talk a lot about the benefits of getting energy from highly digestible fiber, reduced acidosis and the various agronomic benefits. One thing that is very important but not often discussed is how feeding high forage diets can impact replacement rate.

It’s obvious that replacement heifers cost money, but just how much they cost may be an eye opener.

Industry-wide, replacement rates are often in the range of 40%. For the sake of easy math, let’s examine a 100 cow herd. A 40% replacement rate translates to raising or buying 40 heifers per year and selling 40 cull cows. While some income will be realized by selling the culls, it won’t completely offset the cost of the heifers. Generally, the spread between buying a heifer and selling a cull cow is about $1000 (in the red). So the net cost of replacing 40 cows per year on this farm is $40,000 per year.

This can be a huge profit center, If the dairy was purchasing these heifers and now due to lowered cull rate doesn’t have to, these are now monies that are freed up for other projects at the dairy or family living, On the other hand if the dairy owns the heifers and now they become saleable vs. using them up with involintary culling or turnover, The math is quite simple but frequently overlooked, by cutting the cull rate in half to 20%, the net cost of replacement heifers is $20,000. In other words, the operation saved $20,000 per year by cutting their cull rate in half. On an annualized basis, the producer saved $.55 per cow per day ($20,000/ 100 cows/ 365 days).

So, how do you achieve lower herd turnover? Of course all of the cow comfort issues come into play, but how you feed the cows has a huge impact on turnover. Too much starch fed for too long will have negative effects, period. Feeding high energy forages that allow you to back starch (grain) out of the ration translates into healthier cows and lower herd turnover. Not only will you cull less cows, but your feed costs will go down too!

By the numbers:

  • 20% turnover compared to 40% turnover on a 100 cow herd
  • 40 cows x the difference of purchase or cull price of approx. $1000.00 = $ 40000.00
  • 20 cows x the same math of $ 1000.00 = $20000.00
  • $40000.00 – $20000.0 = $20000.00 saved due to fewer heifers being purchased
  • $20000.00 / 100 / 365 =$.548/cow/day less fixed cost charged to each of the 100 cows milking.

How much could you save per year by cutting your replacement rate from 40% to 20%? Consult the table below:

Cow #’s 100 Cows 200 Cows 300 Cows 500 Cows 1000 Cows 2000 Cows
$ Saved $20,000 $40,000 $60,000 $100,000 $200,000 $400,000

Why Is It Important to Look at NDF-D (Digestibility)?

In recent years, commercial forage testing laboratories have begun to evaluate the neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFD) as well as NDF with acid detergent fiber (ADF). Although ADF and NDF are good indicators of fiber contents in forages, they do not measure how digestible that fiber is.

In vitro NDF digestibility gives us more accurate estimates of total digestible nutrients (TDN), net energy (NE), and feed intake potential. In general, increased NDF digestibility will result in higher digestible energy and forage intakes. By including NDF digestibility parameter, ration balancing can be more precise with more predictable dairy milk production. Here is a very simple comparison of two different NDF digestibility numbers for the same NDF content in two different forage samples. If you have two haylage samples that both analyze 21% CP, 32% ADF, and 43% NDF, then would they be considered equal in terms of affecting animal performance? If forage sample #1 has 45% of NDF digestibility and forage #2 has 60% NDF digestibility, it is obvious that feeding forage #2 will result in a lot more milk or gain than forage #1. There is a report indicating that one unit increase of NDF digestibility is associated with 0.37 lb increase in dry matter intake and 0.51 lb increase in milk yield. Thus, it’s worth looking at the NDF digestibility in forage quality analysis when forage samples are sent to the commercial lab. When the in vitro NDF digestibility is low (i.e., 44 % NDFD for alfalfa hay), there are three possible options; 1) Substitute forage with another forage that is higher in NDF digestibility, 2) Add highly digestible fiber commodities (i.e., soy hulls, beet pulp, cottonseeds, corn gluten feed, and distiller’s grain), and 3) Change the ratio of forages in favor of the higher NDFD forages.

How does stage of maturity affect forage NDF digestibility?
Maturity at harvest has the greatest influence on NDF digestibility. As forage matures, NDF digestibility can decline more than 40 percentage units (% of NDF). The decline in NDF digestibility in grasses and small grain silages is particularly dramatic with advancing maturity. In general, when grasses and small grain forages are in the vegetative stage, NDF digestibility is very high (>70 % of NDF). However, when stem elongation occurs in grasses and small grain forage, NDF digestibility declines at a relatively fast rate. In legumes, NDF digestibility is less than the grasses or small grains during early vegetative stage of growth (alfalfa hay : grass hay = 60 : 75 % NDF digestibility) but declines slower and in a more linear fashion with advancing maturity. NDF digestibility in corn silage declines approximately 10.0 percentage units between the ½ milk-line to advanced black layer stages of maturity. Harvesting at optimum stage of maturity (i.e., grasses at boot, legumes at bud, and corn silage at ½ milk line) is important to maximize both yield and quality including NDF digestibility.

Why does NDF digestibility decline with advancing maturity?
With advancing maturity, plants develop xylem tissue for water transport, accumulate cellulose and other complex carbohydrates, and these tissues become bound together by a process known as lignification. In particular, lignin in plant cell walls is more difficult for rumen bacteria to digest than cellulose or hemicellulose. As maturity proceeds, leaf-to stem ratio declines (more stems, fewer leaves) and as a result NDF digestibility declines because a greater portion of the total NDF is NDF associated with stem tissue.

In general, more digestible fiber is less filling because it is retained in the rumen for a shorter period of time. Since it is less filling in the rumen, diets containing highly digestible fiber allow greater dry matter intake for animals with intake limited by physical fill. High producing herds, herds that maximize forage feeding, and high-group cows will benefit most from forages with high NDF digestibility.

By Dr. Doo-Hong Min, Research and Extension Forage Specialist, MSU