High-Forage Diets More Important than Ever – by Larry Hawkins

With grain prices soaring due to ethanol production and no end in sight, dairy producers are facing new realities in profitable diet formulation for today’s high producing dairy cows. This new reality is that producers are looking for less expensive alternatives to corn to push production.

Some have gone the route of using more byproducts to replace grain. However, regardless of how inexpensive the byproduct is, it still must be purchased! Others have looked at using various warm- and cool-season grasses due to the higher digestibility of these forages.

Higher digestibility is the key to energy value in any feed. The cool grasses and small grains in this guide as well as Alta Gene-Six forage sorghums and sorghum sudan crosses, provide the two most important attributes to high-forages feeding. Number one is very simple—you can’t feed more forage unless you have more forage. The warm season grasses and triticales provide double cropping and crop rotation opportunities that are less available in straight alfalfa and corn silage rotations. The tall fescues (in the upper Midwest) provide added tons (1 to 1½ tons DM per acre) when partnered with alfalfa. These crops allow for higher forage production on the same acres. Obviously, yield per acre is a huge driving force on any cropping operation.

The second essential factor in high-forage feeding is quality (read “energy”). Energy takes up the most room in any diet and so it is vital to get energy-dense ingredients into a diet that still provides digestible fiber. Remember wheat straw has fiber, but little energy! Again it is very simple—you can’t get much milk feeding higher amounts of average-quality forages. A few years ago, at the Four State Dairy Nutrition Conference, a report was presented which showed that as larger dairies fed more corn silage and less alfalfa, less manure was produced and more of the feed was turned into milk. The range of feeding was 25/75 to 75/25. With this change, 14 lbs less DM of manure was produced. It is simple to understand if we look at the NDF-d’s of alfalfa (40 to 50%) compared to corn silage (50 to 60%). Including even higher digestible grass in the mix tilts the bar even more in your favor.

NDF represents a measure of the energy in the less digestible part of a feed. To most nutritionists NDF represents a negative—the higher the NDF (the less digestible part) the lower the energy. However, as more is being learned about NDF-d, we are seeing the old rules, i.e. 0.9% of body weight of forage NDF being the absolute limit on the amount of forage a cow could eat (due to rumen fill) being reconsidered. Our previous notion that all NDF is alike is now being blown out of the water. The new reality here is that as digestibility goes up, more forage can be fed without a negative production effect.

The table below shows how the inter-seeding of modern European bred cool season grasses into alfalfa fields has changed the game. The chart below is from the results of the 2011 World Dairy Expo Forage Analysis Super Bowl. In each category of forage the average stats of the pure alfalfas are exceeded by the mixtures of grass and alfalfa. In addition, in the dairy hay category, the best grass mix was 2nd. In dairy haylage, the best grass mixes were 1st, 2nd and 4th. And in balage, the grass/alfalfa mixes were 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th.

The really telling category is when you compare the commercial hay division, which had virtually no grass, to the grass hay category. The average digestibility of the pure grasses was 73.8% (NDF-d). This can also be compared to the best corn silages, where the average of the top ten BMR samples averaged 62% NDF-d. The weighted average of all the alfalfa finalists is close to 47% NDF-d.

The good news is that we now have modern European improved grasses, which really deserve a place in modern dairy diets and other high performance livestock diets. The big improvement is the late-headedness, which allows for timely cutting where both the alfalfa and the grass are at optimum maturities.

Byron Seeds, LLC is attuned to selecting and managing the establishment of both cool- and warm-season grasses to fit your farm wherever it is in the Midwest. The answers are not the same in every area we work in, but your local Byron Seed dealer will have this information about the crops that will help you achieve a more prosperous future.

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.

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.

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

Efficiencies, Nutritionally Speaking – by Larry Hawkins

The buzz word that is going around when talking about solutions for livestock feeding after the summer Midwest drought is “efficiency.” This is obviously due to crop crises across all types of feed for dairy and beef cows, from protein to corn, to corn silage and hay(lage). Livestock owners are faced with being as efficient as possible with their feedstuffs all the way from eliminating waste in feed storage and in TMR prep, to feeding to a clean bunk, to feeding a ration that produces more milk or meat and less manure (feed efficiency). This article will touch on a wide range of topics involving the forage side of your ration.


One of the biggest advantages for those of you who either planted a sorghum bmr Gene 6 product (Forage Sorghum, Sorghum-Sudan or a Sudan hybrid, hereinafter referred to as sorghum) for either an emergency forage or as a regular part of your forage program, is the efficiency of the bmr Gene 6 products. We know of no other feed that provides the energy in as efficient manner as the sorghums. Bear in mind, we are only talking about bmr Gene 6, not other higher lignin sorghum products. There is, however a recognition factor among nutritionists who look at a forage test result of our sorghums and only see the high NDF. This high NDF is very digestible and probably even higher in digestibility than the NIR (Near Infrared) test indicates. The energy value printed on the feed test report will appear to be mediocre.

Here is the rub: there is no test for energy whether for corn silage, haylage or sorghum. All energy values (NEL for lactating dairy cows or NEG for steers or growing heifers) are calculations. Whereas energy values for corn silage and haylage are constantly being reevaluated and researched, the energy values for sorghums have hardly been researched at all. Feed test results for sorghums are just run through the corn silage equations. Compared to corn silage, bmr Gene 6 sorghums are higher in sugar, considerably lower in starch and lower in lignin (as a percent of the NDF). And as a wag might say, “other than that there is hardly any difference!”

The big problem with feeding bmr Gene 6 sorghum silage will occur when the diet is formulated with too much starch. Researchers (Grant, et al) at the Miner Institute in Chazy, New York have found that the addition of between 0.10 and 0.15 to the calculated NEL from the feed test report will get the ration started on the right foot. That is, if the test report shows 0.60 NEL, you would enter 0.75NEL in the ration balancing program. To further define which number to use, 0.10 or 0.15, if the ADF is from 28 to 34%, formulate with the 0.15 addition and above 35% ADF, use 0.1 or 0.12. According to Tom Kilcer at Advanced Ag Systems (personal communications) the energy from starch is a huge burst (resulting in undesirable rumen pH fluctuations) and the energy from the high levels of 6-carbon and especially the 5-carbon sugars in the NDF of sorghums provide a steady-state delivery of energy to the rumen. This will bring the level of grain feeding into the correct realm. We are learning much about starch or rather how little we can feed of it as the price of corn spirals out of sight.

A feeding trial at Miner Agricultural Research Institute (Grant, et al) showed at remarkable 28% (1.62 compared to 1.26) increase in milk efficiency (SCM/DMI) in a ration with 45% bmr Gene 6 Sorghum-Sudan (SS) fed to mid-lactation cows compared to 45% corn silage (CS). Other treatments were 35% of the ration dry matter in either CS or bmr Gene 6 SS. With similar trending results The only other forage in the diet was 10% of the DM in alfalfa haylage. Even with the addition of 6#’s soy hulls to the corn silage diet, (none was fed to the SS cows) body weight gained (1$/day on the SS diet and stayed the same with the CS diet. Other findings included higher butterfat, higher rumen pH, lower excretion of phosphorus, higher acetate to propionate ratios and overall better utilization of nutrients in the total diet and most significantly, lower DMI for the same milk production!

This energy delivery advantage for sorghums over corn silage is coupled with a higher crude protein level which provides additional benefit as the prices of protein sources are spiraling upward also.

Here are some other considerations about the storage and preservation of sorghums. Chop length should be longer than corn silage or haylage and be in the range of ¾” to 1” cut. The crop will be wetter than corn silage (and not for a Harvestore storage!) and close to 70% moisture. Preservation should be with a homo-fermentative inoculant, (i.e. one that produces only one fermentation acid – Lactic) not a buchneri type. These homo-fermentation preservatives are the most plentiful in the marketplace and definitely will work faster and better for the large amount of 5-Carbon sugar contained in the sorghum silages. Fermentation will be very rapid (even as short as I day) due to the high sugar levels and better packing due to the dense (wet) forage. For highest quality, forage sorghum should be harvested as the lowest grain start to reach soft-dough stage. Dwarf sorghum-Sudan (AS6402) should be harvest at 32” and the other sorghum-sudans and sudan hybrids at 40” for optimum quality. If frost is involved when harvesting, be sure to let the silage ferment for 5-10 days before feeding to allow for the dissipation of any prussic acid.

Forage Triticales

Forage Triticales (as opposed to those bred entirely for grain production), although not suffering the same energy evaluation problems as sorghum, does have the same advantages when replacing corn silage in a dairy diet which includes the higher protein (than corn silage) and the steady-state delivery of energy from the 5-carbon sugars in the NDF compared to the rumen pH altering bursts from the corn silage starch. Feeders of high quality triticale will also find some of the efficiency (milk per Ib DMI) that we see in sorghum.

High quality triticale is harvested at the flag leaf stage. This is when the last leaf appears in a spike-like form and then opens and lays over. The next stage is the boot stage and slightly lower quality forage is produced from that time on until full head out when it eventually becomes straw. It is better to cut ahead of optimum rather than too late.

These forages which in many instances are being tried for the first time due to the need for emergency forage may become staples in Upper Midwest dairy forage programs. Double-cropping can be viable here as well as more temperate regions.

Cool Season Grasses

Everything just said about triticale can be can be attributed to high quality European grasses such as Tall Fescue, Meadow Fescue, Perennial Ryegrass Italian Ryegrass, a few Festuloliums and some Orchardgrasses due to their high levels of 5-carbon sugar compared to alfalfa and their lack of phenolic bonding compared to corn silage (kind of like bmr haylage!). There are two things to remember: first, the spread between the best and the worst of any of these species of grasses is very profound-much wider than the difference between the best and the worst alfalfas on the market. This is due to the lack of domestic grass-breeding programs in the US compared to Europe. Europe needed grasses because of their climate and their difficulty in growing alfalfa whereas the US became convinced that pure alfalfa was the answer 30 to 40 years ago as the existing early-heading grasses seemed to not hold the promise of the higher protein alfalfa. As more was learned about NDF digestibility, modern European lateheading grasses began to make more sense.

The second thing is that if a farm has both a mixed stand of alfalfa/grass and a stand of pure alfalfa, the highest upside is in making the mixed stand first. This will yield a haylage with only marginally less protein, but a much higher digestibility (energy). These grasses are late-heading, but will not wait forever when cuttings get delayed. The total package with mixed alfalfa/grass is you get a highly palatable haylage with more yield, better quality (as judged by Relative Forage Quality) and higher energy. It’s an efficiency triple play!

70 Ibs of Milk on No Grain – by Larry Hawkins

Wilmer Martin grew up on a dairy farm in Lancaster County, PA, but didn’t dairy on his own until he relocated to Colby, WI about seven years ago. Possibly this respite from active dairying spurred his “thinking outside the box.” Three outside-the-box things that Wilmer did, at about the same time, were adding cool season European grasses to his alfalfa and using wide-swathing as a ways to reach a goal of better quality haylage. A third thing was to raise a warm-season grass (BMR Gene Six Sorghum-Sudan).

Each strategy promotes quality in somewhat related ways. The cool season grasses, in this case, Lofa Festulolium, provide higher sugar levels including both 5-carbon and 6-carbon sugars and a more digestible neutral detergent fiber (NDF). The wide-swathing allows a greater retention of that high sugar level since the 6-carbon sugars respire away overnight when left in the field. The sorghum-sudan silage is also very high in both 5- and 6-carbon sugar and digestible NDF. One other addition to his forage choices was using Masters Choice (MC) as his corn silage cho

After realizing the quality level of his haylage and sorghum, Wilmer with the supervision of his nutritionist John Feiten of Midwest Nutrition in Spencer, WI, corn grain was removed from his TMR mix. When he got down to zero pounds added corn, obviously, that was as far as he could go. What he noticed after doing this for a while was that he was able to maintain 70 pounds of milk, a higher butterfat test and have healthier cows that bred back with fewer services!

It is not that Wilmer is feeding no corn, but only the amount contained in the corn silage. How much corn is in his TMR? By calculation and assuming that corn is 70% starch and the corn silage (by test) is 34.34% starch, the corn in the 19.5 Ibs of DM corn silage is only 9.57Ibs. The dietary starch is 16.3%.

John has maintained these levels for several years now and a one proof of the highly digestible starch of the MC corn silage came when he ran out of his own corn silage and fed some of his neighbor’s. When the dust cleared, Wilmer had to add 3Ibs of corn to his TMR per cow per day to maintain 70Ibs of milk even though the other corn silage was 7% higher in starch than the Masters Choice (41% to 34%). Along with the added corn to maintain 70Ibs of milk, the dietary starch levels far exceeded the recommended less than 25% when feeding MC corn silage.

One other important note about this diet is the efficiency of it. There are 1.2Ibs of mineral and buffer, 0.9 Ibs of protein, 19.5Ibs of corn silage, 16.1Ibs of grass/alfalfa haylage and 4.6Ibs of sorghum-sudan silage. This totals about 42.5Ibs dry matter intake (DMI) and 1.65 milk efficiency. Obviously, when more of the feed is turned into milk, less becomes manure or carbon emission. The total purchased ingredients in this diet are 2.1Ibs!

Wilmer tried the wide-swathing haylage harvesting technique without all the proper equipment. Last year his 65% (of the mower width) swathing dried very fast just due to the extremely hot and dry weather. In 2011, this width made it difficult to get all the haylage harvested in one day. This past winter (2012), Wilmer got to hear Tom Kilcer at the Byron Seed Winter Seminars. Tom is the lead researcher on wide-swathing. Wilmer is now looking into either building or buying a wider mower without conditioning rolls. In wide-swathing, conditioning rolls are left as wide apart as possible since the initial rapid drying phase (down to 35 to 30% DM) goes faster on unconditioned hay. Obviously, hay crop that is designated for dry baled hay must be conditioned. Advantages of wide swathing include less dry matter loss (more haylage when sugars don’t respire away) higher energy haylage, less proteolysis (less breakdown of complex protein into NPN) and lower clostridium production (meaning better fermentation and almost never energy-robbing butyric acid formation) and better lactic to acetic fermentation profiles. More info can be obtained about wide-swathing by contacting your Byron Dealer and we will connect you with this information.

The biggest factor though is the width of the swath. The swaths must be laid out to at least 85% (95% is better) of the width mowed. Even though you will drive on some of the hay (hard to get adjusted to!!) it will have no detrimental effect and the sugar level of the haylage will be much higher when chopped in the same day. The routine is mow in the early am and be chopping at least by 2:00pm. One thing that Wilmer learned is that you don’t rake the hay until right in front of the chopper. This is because the rapid drying phase will stop when the hay is rolled up. Another warning is that when grass and alfalfa are grown together, 3” residue heights become necessary to maintain grass regrowth. This higher cutting height actually improves total yearly haylage yield.

Wilmer obviously could further supplement his cows with purchased corn and protein to push production up to 80 or 90Ibs. This ration is 95% forage and 5% concentrate and with his cow’s performance and herd health, he does not see any reason to go further. How did the 2012 drought affect the ration? Haylage production was off last year and about 8Ibs less is being fed. The ration this fall is a bit more protein and corn silage. It now weighs in at 85% forage, 19.5% starch and 14% protein, but still the same milk production.

Thinking outside the box has helped Wilmer improve his forage quality. Part of the out of the box thinking is recognizing that the most important aspect of this “quality is high digestibility not high protein.

How I Saved My Dairy Business From Drowning

VIDEO: Trantham’s Sustainable 12 Aprils Dairy Grazing Program

A top 10 South Carolina Dairy Farm almost went under, until he changed his perspective. This revolutionary thought was to “follow the cows instead of leading”. From this epiphany he developed the 12 Aprils Dairy Grazing Program. This farmer has not purchased chemicals for >20 years and continues to increase production. Keys in this video:

  • Have a a crop coming into grazing maturity continuously throughout the year (plants 4 – 5 times a year)
  • Top part of plant consists of 22% protein and the bottom half being lignin fiber is only 6 – 8%
  • 2.5 – 3.5 acres per padock, otherwise they pick the best from the entire field (resulting in best milk production the frirst few days)
  • Double Bushhog – Bushhog to 4″ and let sit then 5 days later bushhog to the ground to make stand go dormant, then no-till in your new stand
  • Geo Textile Cloth – to create mud free walkways 
  • Overseed by 10% because of overgrazing