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Technology helps boost forage ration potential

Cecilia Parsons Published on 16 September 2011

The concept of a forage-heavy ration might seem like a step back in time, but thanks to technology that ration is looking futuristic.

Cow genetics and herd management have made huge strides in the past 20 to 30 years, so it makes sense to have similar advances in crop production and fertility management.

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Agri-King dairy consultant Jessica Wiersma, says simply that increased forage – high-quality forage – creates a healthier diet for cows.

Based on Wiersma’s success in Washington, Fresno-based California Ag Solutions (CAS) has paired its forage program with key tools and expertise in the area of feed efficiency. Michelle Rossow, manager of CAS dairy integration, says their program partnered with Illinois-based Agri-King’s nutritionists, research and enhanced product line to assist dairy producers with growing, storing and feeding high-quality forage.

Usable forage energy is the goal, but soil, genetics, seed quality, plant nutrition, harvest management, forage additives and TMR additives can all enhance or subtract from the energy potential.

The CAS systems approach makes sure the forage crop is grown and harvested to optimize digestible yields. Monte Bottens, CAS president, calls it the “roots to rumen” program because it carries from the soil-root interaction to the forage-rumen interaction.

His role is helping growers optimize soil conditions and crop nutrition through a balanced approach. Soils are tested and mapped for necessary amendments, manure strategies and supplemental fertilizer.

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Prior to planting, producers or farm managers learn tillage and fertilization techniques, including applications of nutritional products at planting and foliar applications. All are designed to support forage yield and quality during key development stages.

Sidedress nitrogen and sulfur applications are recommended along with other nutritional products to supply nutrients during rapid growth phase, pre-pollination and post-pollination.

At harvest, custom choppers are assisted in applying a forage additive. Yield and quality are monitored at the field and in the pits or bags.

Last year, Bottens says, CAS collected more than 100 samples of corn silage and alfalfa hay to create a database that tracks planting dates, variety, tillage system and location. They have also developed spreadsheets to assist in silage pile planning dimensions that take into account feedout rates and yield estimates.

Taking the volatile concentrate costs out of the feeding equation and using higher-quality forages can give dairy producers some relief, Bottens says.

The George Deruyter & Sons Dairy in Washington started making the move toward increased forage feeding four years ago. Forage percentage of the ration increased as tests showed higher energy levels.

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The dairy started at 42 to 44 percent forage and now feeds in the 52 to 55 percent range. Milk production has improved and components are higher, says general manager Jeremy Waterman.

The 5,000-cow dairy, in operation since 1991, is able to grow most of its own forage – about 4,500 acres annually in silage and haylage.

Waterman says that as the forage quality increased, they also found reproduction rates improved. As for costs – the ration itself is higher due to higher costs for concentrates, but they are saving 58 to 60 cents per day per cow plus better milk production and improved components, Waterman says, with the higher percentage of forage in the diet.

Wiersma says the forage was gradually increased to reduce the amount of concentrates fed and allow cows’ rumens to adjust.

“We did it to save feed costs and it helps with the health of the cows – higher digestibility,” Waterman says. “It doesn’t cost any more to grow higher-quality forages.”

Investing in enhanced forage production and feeding will pay off in the long run in cow health and reproduction, Waterman says.

When formulating the ration, Wiersma says, they reduced the triticale portion to lower nitrate levels and selected high-quality hay. The dairy didn’t have to make any huge changes, just adjust mixing to make sure the TMR was adequately mixed.

The increased forage allowed the dairy to increase the starch concentration of the ration without hurting the cows, to support rumen function and overall cow performance. Wiersma says they could not increase starch above 22 to 23 percent when the forage was below 48 percent of the total diet due to issues with clostridia and hemorrhagic bowel syndrome.

“As with any dairy herd, there are issues to contend with, but we have been able to keep things more consistent with the forage above 50 percent,” Wiersma says. PD

Cecilia Parsons is a freelance writer based in Ducor, California.

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