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Managing forages during expansion

Mike Hutjens for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 May 2019

A co-worker raised interesting questions: As dairy farms consolidate (fewer dairy farms with more cows on each farm), what changes in forage production need to be considered?

Do larger dairy farms have different economical and production needs compared to smaller dairies? My answer is: yes. Let’s discuss alternatives and choices.



Basic guidelines are not size-dependent

  1. Maintaining optimal milk production and components are needed as an economic base.

  2. Dairy cows (both lactating and dry cows) consume 2 percent of their bodyweight as forage dry matter to maintain optimal rumen health and milk components.

  3. Heifers consume variable levels of forage intake based on their age and bodyweight. Holstein heifers should gain over 1.8 pounds per day to calve at 23 months old.

  4. Forage quality is critical for high-producing cows.

  5. Older heifers (breeding age) and dry cows can utilize lower-quality forages.

Forage inventory needs

An example can be used as a herd is increased to 600 cows. Six hundred total cows were selected to fill one tanker load of milk per day. We will assume 1,400-pound Holstein cows are currently on the farm with future expansion of similarly sized cows.

  • A 1,400-pound cow x 2 percent of bodyweight equals 28 pounds of forage dry matter a day.

  • Twenty-eight pounds of dry matter per cow per day x 365 days (dry cows will consume similar forage levels) results in 10,220 pounds or 5.1 tons of total forage dry matter consumed and needed per year.

  • The goal is to increase the amount of forage dry matter needed to allow for a 6.5 percent shrink or loss. Forage shrink or losses of 6.5 percent (this value could be higher or lower) can be calculated by taking 10,200 pounds of forage dry matter divided by 0.935 (93.5 percent), which results in 10,930 pounds or 5.5 tons of forage dry matter per dairy cow (rounding the numbers).

  • With our future herd size, 5.5 tons of forage dry matter x 600 cows (includes dry cows), we need approximately 3,300 tons of forage dry matter.

  • Does the expanding farm raise heifers on the farm or have a custom heifer operation raise these animals? One thumb rule is to add 30 percent of the dairy cow forage requirements if heifers remain on the farm. Pasture use will affect this level.

Land requirements

Once the herd owner has determined the amount of forage dry matter needed (3,300 tons), several decisions are needed. If we grow all forages on the farm, the land calculation depends on yield per acre of forage dry matter.

  • In Illinois with high-yielding soils with favorable summer moisture and degree days, yields of 6 to 10 tons of corn silage dry matter per acre are possible. In our example, 8 tons of dry matter per acre were used.

  • Legume-grass forage yield can vary from 5 to 7 tons of dry matter per acre depending on the growing season, number of cuttings and soil/moisture conditions. In our example, 6 tons of dry matter per acre were used.

  • Winter cover crops can produce 1.5 to 2.5 tons per acre depending on stage of maturity and growing conditions along with double-cropping alternatives (can be full-season corn silage or soybeans as a cash crop). If 150 acres of the winter cereal grain crop are raised, the following adjustments are possible with 2 tons of cereal forage yield per acre used.

o Choice 1: 150 acres of winter cereal grain forage x 2 tons of forage dry matter per acre divided by 8 tons per acre equals 37 fewer acres of corn silage listed in Table 1 are needed.
Acreage needed when expanding a herd to 600 cows based on various forage combinations

o Choice 2: 150 acres of winter cereal grain forage x 2 tons of forage dry matter per acre divided by 6 tons per acre equals 50 fewer acres of legume grass forage listed in Table 1 are needed.

Next, the farm manager or owner needs to decide which forage crops will be selected. Our recommendation of forage dry matter is two-thirds corn silage (higher dry matter yields per acre, one-time harvest, a longer harvest window and greater mechanization possible). The remaining one-third can be legume-grass forage including haylage, hay, baleage or pasture (this spreads crop risks, provides functional fiber, allows crop rotation to reduce insect and disease and/or purchase hay). Using Illinois yields and guidelines, the expanding dairy needs are summarized in Table 1.


Finally, will the owner purchase some part of the forage inventory needs? Baled hay is an alternative if quality can be ensured and processing on the farm is possible. Can you store the purchased hay on your farm when it is available and at a cheaper cost? Purchasing wet silages may not be an alternative due to hauling large amounts of water, raising hauling charges per ton of dry matter.

Another factor is: How many acres of land are needed to dispose of manure? How far is available rented land to bring manure to the land? Can manure be sold to the rental farms to reduce forage costs and meet the manure plan of the farm?

Heifer and dry cow strategies

Dairy herds can move their replacement heifer-rearing program to an alternate site. The location can be local or in another state, depending on cost per day. According to the University of Wisconsin survey, heifer charges vary from $2 to $3 a day depending on the age of heifers sent to the heifer grower and age being returned. Lightweight heifers have lower costs due to lower dry matter intake (DMI), while older heifers consume amounts similar to dry cows.

Moving heifers out of state may allow heifers to be raised on dirt corrals, improving hooves and legs. Transportation costs of moving the heifers can vary from 10 to 20 cents per day and are added to total daily costs. A signed contract between the owner and heifer grower is needed to outline health guidelines, treatment costs of health disorders, breeding time and semen, growth requirements and death loss. If heifers are not raised on the current dairy farm, heifer forage needs can be reduced by 20 to 30 percent.

Another enterprise alternative is to have dry cows housed at another location that features a dry cow management system. Dry cows are monitored to ensure proper dry-off procedures occur. Groups of dry cows could include springing heifers, far-off dry cows (subgroups of thin and adequate-body-condition scores) and close-up dry cows. Cows would calve at this facility, leading to careful monitoring for metabolic disorders and disease treatment (mastitis and metritis, for example).

Fresh cows could remain on the farm until colostrum milk has cleared, and these cows can join the milking herd. Fresh cows could remain for three to 10 more days if desired to be sure the fresh cows are healthy and ready to compete at the owner’s farm. Specialized management, calving and health evaluations can be conducted on the dry cow or fresh cow facility. Dry cow forage needs can be reduced by 50 to 60 days.


Forage extenders

Another consideration is using forage extenders to reduce the amount of traditional forages used. Fuzzy cottonseed is a byproduct feed that offers functional and chemical fiber along with oil and protein content. If the farm adds fuzzy cottonseed for the initial 200 days after calving (not fed to low-producing or dry cows) x 4 pounds of dry matter per day x 600 cows, fuzzy cottonseed can replace 240 tons of forage dry matter (30 or 40 acres of traditional forage in Table 1).

Soyhulls, beet pulp, corn gluten feed and wheat midds provide chemical fiber but little functional fiber. These byproduct feeds can be an economical source of nutrients and reduce the risk of subacute rumen acidosis (SARA).

Straw, cornstalks and corncobs can “bulk up” a ration, diluting down nutrient content while allowing free-choice consumption of the ration. Breeding-age heifers and dry cows can use these plant byproducts. Treating these plant fibers with calcium oxide or ammonia can increase fiber digestibility by “opening up” fiber for rumen microbial fermentation. These chemical treatments must be handled carefully when applying these products.  end mark

Mike Hutjens
  • Mike Hutjens

  • Professor of Animal Sciences Emeritus
  • University of Illinois – Urbana
  • Email Mike Hutjens