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Nutrition: New Forage Challenges

02:05AM Jun 03, 2013
Jim Linn

Non-traditional forages will be finding their way into summer and fall feeding programs. Here’s help in managing them.

Forage inventories on many dairy farms in the Midwest are about depleted, especially hay crop forages. A high yield of the first cutting of quality alfalfa is needed for feeding this summer.

However, many producers were hit hard with winter kill in their alfalfa. They have had to scramble to figure out what to replant and then find seed for planting.

For many producers in this situation, there may be non-traditional forages included in the summer and fall feeding program. For those farmers whose alfalfa did survive the winter, the cool wet spring has slowed plant growth and delayed the first cutting.

Whichever the situation—feeding newly harvested forages or feeding a new forage species—the forage and fiber needs of the cow remain the same. Quantity, quality and effective fiber are the three things to keep in mind as forages are harvested this summer.

Forage quality is certainly important, but quantity supersedes quality this year. High-quality legumes and grasses yield less per acre than good quality. As quality increases, cows eat more forage and it takes more forage in the diet to meet fiber requirements.

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Bonus Content

A 140 to 150 relative feed value (RFV) alfalfa haylage (40% neutral detergent fiber [NDF]) will yield more and be better at meeting the forage and fiber requirements of the cow than alfalfa at RFV 170 or higher. From cutting to feeding, RFV will drop about 20 units, so harvesting at about 26" in the very late bud or early flower stage should result in good yield and quality of alfalfa.

Some producers will harvest new varieties of grass for forage this year. The goal for harvest in a pure grass stand is 55% to 60% NDF or at the late boot stage. However, don’t be fooled into thinking cows will eat less of this high NDF forage.

Research studies on the newer grass varieties have shown dry matter (DM) intakes don’t decrease with higher NDF. Grass will not replace straw in diets unless the grass is very mature. For producers who have interseeded grass into a poor alfalfa stand, target the mixed alfalfa-grass crop for harvest at about 50% NDF for both quality and quantity.

Small grain silages will likely be a major forage source in many dairy diets this summer. Oatlage-alfalfa as the first cut of new seeded alfalfa is likely to be the main forage in lactation diets and not just heifer diets by midsummer.

The traditional problem with this and most small grain silage is harvesting and ensiling them at the correct moisture. Producers should target 60% moisture (40% DM) in small grain silage for the best ensiling and feedability results.

High- or all-corn silage diets will likely be the norm this fall and winter. With lots of winterkill acres available with good nitrogen credits, expect to see more replanting into corn or possibly brown midrib (BMR) sorghum-sudangrass if dry conditions and above average temperatures
are expected.

Harvesting corn silage should be like normal. But kernel processing and the option of shredlage for good fiber digestion and physically effective fiber will be essential for healthy cows and good milk production.

Feed Out Rules


Forage quality is certainly important, but quantity supercedes quality this year.

A good inoculant should be added to the forage at ensiling. The forage mass should remain undisturbed for at least two weeks before producers start to feed cows. When the forage is ensiled at the right moisture and packed well, forage fermentation will be complete within seven to 10 days.

Fermentation will take a little longer in legume silage than cereal grain or corn silage. That’s because the high protein and calcium content of legume plants buffer fermentation more than cereal grain or corn silage.

Waiting a month or longer to feed is best, but when producers have to feed ensiled forage sooner, the No. 1 problem will be aerobic instability and heating. As the feed is removed from storage, the mass is disrupted and oxygen is allowed back in for bacteria and yeast growth.

Mature, dry and long particle size forages are more prone to heating on feedout than good quality, correctly ensiled forages. A rapid feedout with excellent face management of the ensiled forage will be the best retardant to aerobic instability.

Hot silage also shortens feed bunk life of the total mixed ration (TMR). Adding a propionic acid or other mold inhibitor designed for the TMR will help reduce bunk life problems. Treating the last several feet of the silage that will be fed first and the top foot of the pile or bunker with propionic will also help minimize heating of the silage during the early feeding period.

JIM LINN is a dairy nutrition consultant and retired Extension nutrition specialist at the University of Minnesota–St. Paul. Contact him at