Nutritionist looks at the crops’ history and what the legume needs to compete
As a way of observing Hay & Forage Grower’s 25th anniversary while honoring Mike Hutjens’ nearly 40 years of service to the dairy industry, we asked the University of Illinois Extension dairy nutritionist, who retired the end of this past year, to talk about forages’ past, present and possible future.
Alfalfa was considered the dairy forage of choice when Mike Hutjens was growing up on a dairy near Green Bay, WI, in the 1950s.
“Corn silage was not seen as a very useful crop other than maybe for steers,” remembers the dairy nutritionist.
“Today, we’re seeing corn silage coming on very, very strong” in dairy rations. “I don’t think we’re ever going to totally replace alfalfa, but alfalfa is at a very interesting juncture,” Hutjens believes.
Most of the past quarter century, corn breeders have been investing more resources into designing and developing improved silage corn hybrids. “By breeding, we can get corns that have higher yields in terms of tonnage. NDF, ADF and lignin fiber sources have different digestibilities. We have different vitreousnesses. We have kernel (plant) processors that allow us to almost customize how we chop corn to meet the rumen requirements in terms of functional fiber and rates of passage.
“Then, of course, there’s gene stacking (for herbicide and insect resistance). It’s my understanding they’re close to a drought-stress gene, where maybe that corn would wait for rain, much like sorghum does. These are exciting times for corn silage.
“With alfalfa, the main thing I hear about is alfalfa that retards some pests. With corn borer and rootworm, we’ve bred into the corn plant that, when they hit the corn plant, it stops and kills them.”
He acknowledges the development of Roundup Ready alfalfa and says the controversy and court case preventing its use are frustrating. “Here we’ve got this new tool we’ve had for several years and aren’t able to use it.”
Yet Hutjens feels more breeding efforts are needed to make alfalfa more attractive to producers. He suggests shifting toward more rumen undegradable protein. “Some of the alfalfa proteins are not being captured very effectively by our cows.
“We need to look at the different types of fiber. Alfalfa has a higher lignin and ADF value. Can we change some of that? Then, of course, the maturity window is a quick one and has always been a challenge. One week of rain and we’re in trouble. A week of rain with corn silage? We can live with the corn silage quality changes.”
He also supports additional grass research “if we can get grasses that broaden the maturity and harvest window a bit, especially in areas where alfalfa has a hard time competing.”
The dairy nutritionist is enthusiastic about baleage. “Baleage is an interesting development over the past five to seven years; we now have newer technology that does an excellent job of wrapping those bales. It ends up as hay silage in a day and that’s a huge advantage.
“The beauty with baleage is, we now have TMR mixers that can take bales and process them fairly correctly. I can get a longer particle-length product in terms of functional fiber. It’s very palatable, too,” he says.
Forages will always be a part of the dairy cow’s diet, Hutjens surmises.
“But, the question is, who will be the players? We’re seeing a renewed interest in double-cropping small grains – winter wheat and winter triticale, for example – first for erosion control, second for an early forage crop and then come back with full-season corn silage.”
The forage industry has made great strides in its research on NDF digestibility, its adoption of relative forage quality (RFQ) and relative feed value (RFV) measurements and its development of MILK2000, MILK2006 and CornPicker tools that help growers scientifically choose hybrids and varieties.
Ration-balancing technology has made huge advancements, he adds. “When I first started working, the only thing we had was a Michigan State least-cost ration phone-dial program. We got four numbers on a ration.
“Today we have 35-40 variables that we can balance rations for and plug our forages into, including things such as soluble fiber, NDF digestibility, lignin, sugar and starch. All those numbers can target our forages and identify them very accurately to build what we hope are solid rations for our dairy cows. And, of course, we’re not done yet.”
As corn yields have increased, the national average alfalfa yield has stayed at around 3.5 tons/acre. But Hutjens points out the existence of 10-ton alfalfa clubs, in which members strive to produce 10 tons of baled hay per acre.
“It’s almost like the national average on milk. It’s right around 19,000 lbs, and yet we have herds in Wisconsin producing 34,000 lbs/cow. Yes, we have some wonderful new tools good producers probably can use, but there are tremendous opportunities to do much better.”