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Nutrition High-forage rations

May 3, 2010
By: Mike Hutjens, Dairy Today Contributor

*Extended comments are highlighted in blue.

One strategy used by Midwest dairy managers in 2009 when feed prices were high and milk prices were at record lows was feeding more forages.

Incorporating more forage in the ration reduced feed costs while not writing a check to purchase feed (a common banker demand). Another plus was that most Midwest dairy managers are excellent crop managers who raise high-quality legume-grass forage, small-grain forage and corn silage. Those savings lead to lower forage prices and lower cost of production.

In Illinois, dairy managers could raise high-quality alfalfa hay for less than $90/ton, while it would have cost more than $160/ton to purchase. While high-quality forages are worth the higher market price, dairy managers could "sell” high-quality forage to their dairy enterprise at production cost (similar to "selling” their labor below market price to preserve capital).

The questions and answers below can help guide you when transitioning to high-forage diets.

What is a high-forage ration?

Midwest rations range from 45% to 55% of the total ration dry matter as forage depending on forage quality and inventory. High-forage rations can range from 60% to 70% forage dry matter. Inclusion of byproducts as fiber sources (such as beet pulp, corn gluten feed, citrus pulp and wheat midds) also fit this definition.

What are the key concepts behind high-forage rations?


  • Consistent quality is critical to maintain a constant source of nutrients for the dairy cow. This goal may be more attainable with high-corn-silage-based rations as harvest occurs once a year with a wider harvest window. That wide window depends on planting strategies (spreading planting dates by one to two weeks) and variety selection (changing from 100-day to 115-day corn varieties).
  • Legume-grass forages have several risks that must be controlled or managed: weather (e.g., rain damage); multiple harvests that vary in nutrient content due to heat and moisture stress; and variation in the field due to winterkill of legumes, light soil or insect damage.
  • High-quality forage is a must to deliver needed nutrients to the herd (optimal protein level and form, starch levels, effective fiber and energy requirements). Nutrient requirements do not change with high-forage diets. Corn silage dry matter can range from 30% to 35% dry matter, with more than 30% starch, less than 45% neutral detergent fiber (NDF), more than 55% NDFD (NDF digestibility), pH less than 4 and lactic acid levels more than 5% on a dry matter basis. Legume-grass silage can range from 35% to 60% dry matter (depending on storage structure), with more than 18% crude protein (higher with legumes), less than 45% NDF (less than 40% with legumes), more than 50% NDFD, pH less than 4.5 and lactic acid more than 4%.
  • The nutritionist can be flexible in building the ration around forage types available on the farm: corn silage for rumen-fermentable starch and high yield per acre; legumes for protein and functional fiber; grasses for digestible fiber and higher intake; small grain forage for an early forage source and double cropping with corn silage; and straw for lignin and effective physical fiber if needed.
  • Inventory control and availability are important factors in accessing each forage needed to develop the optimal ration. Corn silage bunkers and piles allow for economic storage and fast removal while silage bags allow storage of varied forage qualities and cuttings. Balage can provide a source of long forage without baled hay weather damage risks.

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FEATURED IN: Dairy Today - May 2010

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