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Cocktails for the win: Creative ways to stretch your dairy forages

Melissa Hart for Progressive Dairy Published on 17 March 2020

In the wake of difficult growing conditions that plagued the Midwest in 2019, stretching feed with creative forage solutions was the topic discussed by dairy producer and forage consultant Daniel Olson of Lena, Wisconsin, and dairy producer David Johnson of the Western Upper Peninsula at the recent Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Dr. Mike Van Amburgh, professor at Cornell University, primed the crowd by sharing the latest findings from research regarding the efficiency of absorbed amino acids, nitrogen metabolism and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) digestion. According to Van Amburgh, these recent findings will allow nutritionists to create diets that will maintain production and components while lowering overall intake and create ways to utilize forage consumption to reduce non-farm-raised feeds.

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The pursuit of a high-fiber forage

Olson is owner of Forage Innovations, a forage consulting business that works with over 700,000 cows in 20 states. He explained that when a farm wants to feed a high forage diet but doesn’t have enough forage to make that work, the fiber in forage becomes a premium. Finding a way to include a high fiber crop in the rotation becomes the pursuit.

Johnson runs two dairies and farms 5,000 acres in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The last two years, he was forced to make some drastic changes in their forage program. Dealing with a lot of alfalfa winterkill left them contemplating why they even grow it. Using Olson as a guide, they followed his advice and decided to grow a cocktail of BMR sorghum-sudan, three different types of clovers and ryegrass. Johnson explained that Olson’s rational for this cocktail was, “That if we get dry, the BMR sorghum would do very, very well, and if we are wet, the grasses and clovers are going to do very, very well.” He continued, “We started out cold and wet, and our first-crop cocktail was kind of so-so, but our BMR sorghum did not do very well. And, it continued to rain all summer long. We had over 40 inches of rain, and the grasses and clovers did extremely well.”

Johnson said it was a learning curve not only for him but also for his nutritionist. They are now looking at the digestibility labs. Where he used to focus on crude protein, they are now looking more at digestibility.

Additionally, the cash flow is important: “I’ve been pushed by my accountant the last few years about how much money we are giving to the feed mill out of our milk check, and that is something I’m striving for on our dairy – to keep more of our milk check,” Johnson commented.

Rotating corn and cocktails

Since Johnson added the cocktail mix to their cropping plan, their goals have changed. They want to have a year of corn, then a year of cocktail, and then a year of corn and maybe have some alfalfa in there somewhere. They believe that if they put corn in after the cocktail, they will have increased yields of corn, as if it were the first year they planted corn in that field.

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The new crop rotation has improved their nutrient-management plan as well. According to Johnson, when they grow the cocktail, “It can handle manure all summer long … we are able to put a lot of manure on in the summertime and not have such a problem in the fall if it gets wet.”

Feed out

The ration that Johnson currently feeds is down to about a pound and a half of high-quality alfalfa haylage. The cocktail and alfalfa haylage quality is about the same. “We have eliminated soy hulls in our ration. We used to use soy hulls to stretch the feed a little bit and give us more digestible fiber in the ration.” Johnson continued, “We don’t feed cottonseed anymore, we are just feeding corn silage, cocktail, alfalfa, and I’m down to five and a half pounds of dry corn and a protein mix. Our cows are forage eater,s and that’s what we are striving for. We want to keep more of our milk check.”

Johnson said, “Mother Nature plays games with us too, and every year is different, but I think this is going to be more of our future for our dairy.” He added that many dairies in the northern Wisconsin area are switching to this cocktail mix as well. Last year, Johnson put in 1,500 acres of the cocktail, and they will continue to do so this year as well.

Yields were similar with the cocktail and corn silage. Johnson commented, “Most years it will average similarly to corn-silage yields. In our neck of the woods, we don’t get 25-ton corn silage; most years we will average 17-ton, but we had third-crop cocktail last year average five to six tons less.”

BMR sorghum-sudan grass requires about two-thirds of the water corn silage requires. Olson added that in the event of an extreme dry year, the Italian ryegrass will die off and what will be left is the BMR sorghum-sudan crop, which he says is fairly good risk reduction. Johnson added that after the first frost in October, the cocktail will continue to grow.

Health benefits

Johnson said they had to increase their acres to attain the yields they needed, but the trade-off is in cow health. “In the long run, I think the cow health is better off. The feet health is better; we have had very few abscesses with the feet, and we don’t deal with DAs [displaced abomasum] anymore either,” Johnson said.

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The cows are crossbred at Johnson’s farm. “We have a Holstein, Montbeliarde and Swedish Red cross, and we average 85 pounds a day, but we run real high components.” Johnson continued, “One dairy is at about 4.3 percent and the other is at a 4.5 – 4.6 butterfat test and about a 3.2-3.3 protein test.” According to Johnson, their crossbred cows don’t require a high-starch diet; they work well on digestible fiber and a higher protein ration.

The sugar content in the cocktail is high, therefore the cows don’t require as much starch. With these grasses, the cows are eating almost as many kilos of sugar as the normal starch in a ration, and the cows are not getting acidosis. “For years, we were feeding 28 to 30 percent starch in our cow’s ration. We are down to 23-24 percent right now, and these cows are healthy,” Johnson said. The forage averages about 67 percent in their ration. “I would be comfortable going higher than that, but I’m trying to make the forage stretch as long as I can,” he said.

Van Amburgh added, “We have to figure out how to get more forage into these cows, and it has to be more digestible forage because that is going to be our cheapest, most environmentally effective way to do this. And, that means we are going to have more pressure on our land, and it will make our CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] programs look better.”

Van Amburgh concluded, “This makes me really excited because it fits everything I think a cow should be consuming.”  end mark

PHOTO: Cows at the bunk. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Melissa Hart is a freelance writer based in North Adams, Michigan.

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