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40 years of forage research means more profits for dairy producers

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairy Published on 18 March 2021

If you grow forage or raise animals that consume forages, chances are your operation has been positively impacted by the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center (USDFRC).

According to Center Director Dennis Hancock, researchers there have written more than 3,000 publications on forage and contributed to more than 40 reference books since opening in 1981.



The USDFRC began as a result of a recommendation of a congressionally directed National Dairy Forage Task Force formed in 1975.

Hancock became director of the USDFRC in January 2020. He brought more than 23 years of experience in forage and research, including serving as a professor and forage extension specialist at the University of Georgia, as well as research and extension roles at the University of Kentucky.

There are a total of 22 scientists working at the center, Hancock says. Eight are working on better understanding dairy animal and forage physiology, nine are striving to improve forage production and feeding systems, and five scientists are addressing the reduction of the environmental footprint of the U.S. dairy industry.

It is estimated that research done at the USDFRC saves the dairy industry billions of dollars each year by such things as reducing excessive phosphorus and protein in dairy diets, reducing dry matter and nutrient losses in silage bunkers and piles, improved digestibility in grass and legume varieties, and development of a reduced-lignin alfalfa.

Key scientific contributions include:


  • A better understanding of fiber and protein digestibility
  • Revisions on nutrient requirements used for ration balancing
  • Better assessment methods and metrics for forage quality
  • Improvements in silage making and inoculation
  • Numerous new varieties of various forage crops
  • Developing strategies to reduce methane emissions and increase carbon sequestration on the farm
  • Better soil management practices to minimize nutrient loss and increase the capture of those nutrients with cover crops and living mulches
  • A better understanding of dairy’s contribution to contaminants in the environment

Research work at USDFRC looks at multiple aspects of how each part of integrated dairy systems – forage, nutrition and environment – relates to one another. They are continuously focusing on their mission, which is to provide the dairy industry solutions for food security, environmental sustainability and economic viability. They build uniquely valuable, science-based research initiatives focused on improving dairy production systems, soil ecology, forage production, forage quality, nutrient management and ecosystem services.

Hancock shared some information on what they are currently working on as part of his presentation at the Growing Stronger Collaborative Conference held online in February 2021. “It’s not just the yield we need to worry about, it’s also what is inside the plant,” Hancock said. “Think of the plant as a collection of cells with two basic components: cell content and cell walls.”

He explained the cell content is easily digestible, and the cell wall is neutral detergent fiber (NDF). In any plant, some of the NDF in the cell wall is digestible (NDFD) and some is not. Grasses generally are 50-50 cell content and cell wall, but most of the NDF is digestible. Legumes have more cell content, but the cell wall is less digestible. Hancock said once the figures are calculated, about 37.5% of grasses are digestible fiber, compared to 14% of legumes.

Grasses and legumes pass out of the rumen at different rates. Grasses remain in the rumen longer and break down better. Current research at USDFRC includes investigating how the animal and microbe interact.

Different varieties of individual grasses and legume species can also affect plant digestibility. Hancock said the goal is to gather information so growers can figure out what species are right for each pasture, so animals are getting as much as possible with each bite.

Tall fescue, orchardgrass and meadow fescue all tend to have low NDF and high NDFD. Hancock said one should select species that produce enough high-NDFD forage at the time the producer needs it most. Each species yields differently based on soil, weather and growing season.


Forage height left after grazing can have a big impact on overall forage quality and quantity as well. He said grazing too short at the wrong time not only causes less production but also causes the plant to be less likely to be resilient and to take longer to recover.

Grass that is grazed to less than 4 inches is generally not able to regrow with just photosynthesis; it also has to tap into the carbon reserve of its roots. “It’s tapping into its ‘savings’ every time it grows,” Hancock said. This results in much less root mass, which makes the plant more susceptible to drought and weeds.

Overgrazing at different times in the growing season can impact yields, not just at the time of grazing, but for the rest of the growing season. If you overgraze in the month of July, you will lose yield at the next grazing and for several weeks later.

“Graziers really need to have an emergency forage option for July,” Hancock said. If planting BMR [brown midrib] sudangrass, BMR sorghum/sudan cross or BMR pearl millet, plant it early and harvest as baleage before seedheads emerge, so it doesn’t get ahead of your needs, he said.

Hancock also recommended using fall-planted oats to extend the growing season. He said oats are a great choice because they are not reliant on the length of day to grow. Plant in early August and stockpile for as long as possible. Graziers can use a frontal grazing system, which is similar to strip grazing, but back fencing is not needed since regrowth is not a concern.

Click here to learn more about the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center and what it does.  end mark

PHOTO: Staff photo.

Kelli Boylen is a freelancer based in northeast Iowa.