Grass Alfalfa 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 digestibility . 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, DLF and Eurograss, the three major grass breeding companies in Europe. These companies are the primary sources for the grasses that are viable companions to alfalfa or in many cases able to produce excellent forage standing alone.

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

Yield A huge driver on forage choices by livestockproducers 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, BarElite 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 as alfalfa and therefore, greater summer production. Besides, when it comes to wet feet, alfalfa does poorly, but 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 at a ratio of 40% grass and 60% 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 your extra corn and hay!)

Quality 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 (for NEL) 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.

2011 World Dairy Expo Forage Analysis Super Bowl Results
Category Number/Finalists Forage Type Milk/Ton in Ibs NDF-d%
Dairy Hay 12/20 Pure Alfalfa 3022 48.2
Dairy Hay 8/20 Alfalfa/Grass Mix 3070 52.5
Dairy Haylage 8/20 Pure Alfalfa 3059 46.6
Dairy Haylage 12/20 Alfalfa/Grass Mix 3250 55.5
Baleage 4/10 Pure Alfalfa 2877 46.5
Baleage 6/10 Alfalfa/Grass Mix 3138 62.0
Commercial Hay 20/20 Pure Alfalfa 2878 46.3
Grass Hay 10/10 Pure Grass 3175 73.8

Herd 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 profit opportunity 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 as 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 Besides organic matter grasses provide deep channels for new corn roots to follow, improved soil structure and water holding capacity and better soil aggregation. Obviously, a mixture grass and alfalfa can provide the benefits of both crops as a precursor to the next corn crop.

Enhanced Nutrient Management for large dairies As with organic matter, we know of no common crop with the uptake capabilities of cool-season grasses like tall fescue. 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.

These topics are covered more completely in the Grass Report available from the Indiana warehouse.

Consider Forbs In Your Grass Mixes – by Samuel Fisher

Have you heard about the increased interest in planting forbs in pasture mixes? Forbs like plantain and chicory have extremely high feed value, but there is much more to the story.

I had some farmers tell me recently that by adding a small amount of chicory or plantain in hay for dry cows, they took care of all of their freshening problems including milk fever, retained placentas, fatty livers and more. So I dug deeper and actually found some research data to explain what happened. These forbs with their deep root structures pull up larger amounts of trace minerals than grasses do. Also the calcium/phosphorus ratios are well balanced. There may still be more to the story that we don’t understand at this time.

We have seen how well Tonic plantain works in mixes for pastures and are impressed with its summer performance and the yield it can give. We will also investigate adding some small amounts in hay mixes as well. We will try it on our farm this year and let you know what happens.

When it comes to chicory, there is a huge amount of research showing that sheep and goats grazing chicory have reduced worm loads. In some cases, grazing chicory has been as effective as dosing them with conventional de-wormer. Grazing chicory for just a short period of time can drastically reduce the parasite population but giving them access to some chicory at all times may be even better.

Varieties: Tonic Plantain from PGG added to perennial ryegrass can increase overall production through the dog days of August and the fall. It can be planted in Zones 1 thru 6 and has an improved supply of some trace minerals. It is usually seeded at 4-6 Ibs in a mix.

Forage Feast Chicory is a perennial chicory from France thru Barenbrug with very good winter-hardiness, excellent summer production and very high feed value. A deep taproot makes it very drought-tolerant. Forage Feast looks like a giant dandelion, but tends to be leafier, more digestible and more bolt resistant than competitive varieties. Seed at 1Ib/acre in mixes or 4 to 6 Ibs in a monoculture.

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.

What Are you Loosing By Not Using Forage Seed

What are forage seeds?

Before we dive into what you may be losing by not using forage seed, we must first discuss what forage seeds, (forage crops), are. Forage seed can be loosely defined as the seed of a pasture plant such as legumes and grass. There are many different types of forage seed, and all are used to achieve many different outcomes. Most people know the basics when it comes to the various types of forages such as alfalfa, ryegrass, clover, and small grains, but as you do more research into the world of forage seed, you will quickly recognize the overwhelming amount of options on the market.

Now that we have touched a little on the different types of forages lets discuss a little on the uses for forage seed. The most common use is plain and simple, forage seed is used to give livestock forage to eat. Don’t think it could get any simpler than that. Some other applications include land management and nutrient management. Forage crops are used to break down soil compaction and generate deep root systems to help erosion and water management. As for nutrient management, forages can provide an excellent way to get soil nutrients to the appropriate ratios to maximize yields of your cash crops.

Why learn all there is to offer with forage seeds.

If you are a first generation farmer or even been in the industry for awhile, I am sure you’ve heard about using forage seed in your yearly regiment, so let us discuss the reason you should give it a chance. When using different forages for your livestock, when done right,  can produce significantly healthier stock which turns into less loss from illness and death. If you are a dairy farmer, you know the healthier the diet of your cattle the more milk they will produce, which leads to higher profits. Also learning how to use high-energy forages you can produce enough hay to last through the winter months. In a recent article from Yahoo Finance, the forage seed market is expected to grow more than 8% by 2020. This means farms are catching on to the benefits of using forages in their operations.

The benefits do not just stop at livestock. If you are a cash crop farmer, you will find many uses of forages to cut costs and increase yields. One example is breaking down soil compaction. Over the years of running tractors and torrential rains, your soil can become very dense. Soil compaction can prevent you crops from being as healthy as they could be. With the use of forage seed during the off season, you can break down compaction and allow your plants to sprout faster and grow deeper roots to produce less loss and higher yields in the growing season.

What are you losing?

The first and most noticeable loss from not using forage seed is a loss in profits. The adage is true, in that you have to spend money to make money. By not using forage seeds, your losing profit in the form of low yields, animal loss, and small dairy production. In turn your spending your potential profits on more fertilizer, and pesticide treatments, antibiotics, supplements,  vet bills, and outsourced hay. Now I understand you cannot avoid all theses costs entirely, but you can dramatically reduce them. The second and greatest loss is the loss of time. You are losing time to spend with family, and time used to help your children learn the industry you’ve worked so hard to build. Here at Forage Seeds, we understand the importance the farming industry has in the world, and we want to help you pass your hard work down to future generations, and produce a product that you can be proud of. Thank you for all your sacrifice, and we wish you all the best in your operation.