The dairy cow, as a ruminant, has a huge capacity to convert large amounts of forages to high-quality protein and energy as people food. The benefits to the dairy producers are more basic.
The production of higher amounts of milk components, improved farm incomes, lower purchased feed cost, better rumen health, fewer foot problems, lower veterinary bills, increased cow longevity and better reproductive performance are some of the benefits.
In regions where dairy farms can produce abundant amounts of forages, there is an economic advantage to align the resources of cropping programs, recycling manure nutrients and the ability to produce lots of quality forages to meet the quality and quantity of feeds needed for high forage diets. It is an opportunity to leverage multiple aspects of dairy farming for a powerful economic model.
How much forage can a cow eat? Dairy farmers who focus on high forage diets and high milk
production regularly feed diets as high as 70% forages. More importantly, it calculates out to be in the range of 0.9% to 1.1% of body weight as neutral detergent fiber (NDF) intake from forages. Simply stated, in terms of both amounts and quality, more is better.
Extended column, more on high forage diets
It requires the coordination of feed professionals who understand how the high-performance dairy cow functions to utilize large amounts of high-quality forages. It also requires a dairy farm management system that produces and has available an abundant supply of consistently high-quality forages, mostly corn silage and hay crops. However, all this just does not happen overnight.
Simply making the decision to feed more forages usually does not work very well. It takes a deliberate plan by the farm’s management to focus on a system that emphasizes the production, harvesting, storage, ration programming and feeding of an abundant and consistent supply of quality forages to work.
A lot of things need to work together.
- It starts in the field with crop programs and rotations that produce enough high-quality hay crop forages and the right varieties of corn silage to have year-round supplies of consistent quality to meet the herd’s needs.
- There has to be enough capacity to harvest at the peak of quality—even under some adverse harvesting conditions. Good inventory management should be in place to track individual lots of feeds. It allows for the allocation of feeds to the appropriate groups of cattle. Mower, merger and chopper capacity; hauling capacity; bunk packing capacity need to match the size of the crop; and being ready to roll when conditions are right. Good unloading and packing management at the bunk is needed to preserve a high-quality crop and segregate any material that is not up to high standards.
- Good inventory management should be in place to track individual lots of feeds. Keeping track of the locations and feed amounts is important for the best feeds and feeds of lesser quality. It allows for the allocation of feeds to the appropriate groups of cattle. High forage diets also apply to groups that can utilize forages of lower quality.
- Have enough inventory. Many of the best forage feeding operations will have 18 months of inventory on hand at peak times. This allows for sufficient fermentation time and feed reserves for a difficult year. It is also important to be sure to have enough feed supply to be able to feed consistently high rates at all times to maintain a consistent level of production. Running out of critical feeds is expensive.
- Dairies must do lots of forage analysis. Checking forage when it is harvested and checking it again, even multiple times as it is fed out, will establish a database on a continuum of feeds. Having a good catalog of feed analysis is helpful in making feed allocation decisions for the appropriate groups of cattle.
- It is also essential to keep close track of the dry matter of the feeds as they come out of storage. In some cases, almost daily changes can affect ration inclusion rates. That becomes more critical as forages account for greater portions of the diets.
- Feeding management becomes more important. Intake is encouraged by having constant rations and a constant supply of fresh feeds in the bunk. Practices such as bunk pushups, having some overage in the feed bunk and regular on-time feedings become more important. The shelf life of high forage mixtures can be more limiting and might require an additional mixer batch to keep fresh feed in front of the cows. Sometimes the capacity of the mixer becomes a limiting factor; extra batches or a larger mixer might be needed.
Finally, feeding high levels of forage requires a positive mindset of the entire farm team. The field crop team, the harvesting crews, the bunk packers, the feeding team and the person who determines the mixer batch size all need to be on the same page. The bottom line is high production, healthy cows and high profitability.
Jim Peck is an independent nutrition consultant based in Newark, N.Y. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.