Loren Benware and Dan Marchaland are New York dairymen who feed diets of 75% forage that maintain milk production, lower costs and keep cows – and producers – happy.

“You have to have forage that’s highly digestible; they’re not going to eat 75% forage if it’s July 1st cut,” Benware warns.

“I am convinced it is the only way a small farm can survive,” Marchaland adds.

They each milk around 140 cows, Benware near Madrid and Marchaland at Greenwich. The high-forage diets keep their grain costs and cows’ health problems to a minimum, yet the producers’ approaches are very different. Here are their stories:

We’ve been doing this for well over 10 years and it really works,” says Benware of high-forage diets. “Our cows can milk right up alongside anybody who is feeding 50% forage.”

Three-quarters of his dairy ration is corn silage and alfalfa-reed canarygrass at a 60:40 ratio. If the herd’s dry matter intake (DMI) is at 50 lbs per cow per day, he adds 1.5 lbs of cornmeal and 10 lbs of protein supplement to get an average daily production of 80 lbs at 4% milk per Holstein. When forage DMI is at 54 lbs, cornmeal is fed at 1.8 lbs and protein, 11 lbs.

“We plant a corn designed for ear corn that is testing 62-63% digestibility with starch at 44%, and it’s all put through a chopper. We chop it about 2’ high,” says Benware, which is as high his chopper’s head can be adjusted. He’d tested the lower part of the stalk and found its digestibility at only 18%.

“We’ve got to remember that we’re feeding a cow’s rumen, which has limited space,” he says in justification of leaving that much residue.

Benware, who owns Benware Dairy with his parents, Ira and Emma, also experimented with a hybrid that grew much taller and yielded much more silage per acre than other hybrids.

“But I can’t chop any higher. I’m limited to 2’ and the starch level is lower and the digestibility is lower. So we had to feed a little more cornmeal when we were feeding out that 90-day corn last winter.

“It’s a lesson learned,” he adds.

Continually balancing a ration, and even adding grain when the forage isn’t what it should be, is part of Benware’s success. Another time he had access to a forage harvester that chopped higher than his usual 2’. Because of the highly fermentable starch in that corn silage, the ration included too little cornmeal.

“A ration’s got to be balanced to have a certain percent of fermentable starch, and if you get too much from your homegrown stuff, you’re throwing your balance off. You’re going to get acidosis or metabolic disorders.”

He found that the 85- to 86-day corn and the 2’ cutting height produced silage corn with adequate starch and digestibility levels.

To produce enough feed for the high-forage diet, the producer has to plant, harvest and store at least 10 more acres of corn. “You can plant 10% more corn and the money you’re going to save on your feed bill – it’s well worth it,” he says.

But be sure to have a kernel processor on your chopper, he advises. Before he invested in one, he had “serious problems” with a number of cows. Some even died.

“We opened them up and the kernels were sorting out in the stomach and making ulcers.”

Benware can feed his milkers and dry cows each year from the ensiled corn grown on 125 of his 350 tillable acres. He grows mixed legumes on another 125 acres and mixed grasses on 100 more acres. All haylage is stored in bags while some corn silage is bagged and the rest is put into three upright silos. All forages are treated with inoculants.

He works to cut haylage at alfalfa’s early bud stage and before reed canarygrass heads out. Heifers are fed only haylage for forage. “I feel this teaches them to be big eaters,” Benware says. About 30 days before calving, they get their first taste of corn silage.

“The challenge is when you first start feeding more forage,” he points out. “The feed is bulkier, and the cows need time to adjust to it. Your nutritionist will need to put the NDF of your ration up higher because highly digestible forages have fewer miles of chew.” His ration’s NDF is at 33-34%.

Once they do, his cows have few health problems. Milk fever and laminitis are “non-existent,” displaced abomasums average only two per year and vet bills have lowered.

“We could make more milk per cow, but we’d be playing with health issues,” he says.

High-forage diets also produce a higher butterfat content. “Last winter we got up to 83 to 84 lbs a cow (per day), and my butterfat was 4.2%. You can get a higher butterfat with more forage, because they’re chewing their cuds more and the rumen’s healthier.”

Marchaland has a “somewhat seasonal-calving” 140-cow herd with a 22,000-lb rolling average producing 10 lbs milk per pound of grain. But those cows, mostly Holsteins, have to earn the grain. It’s fed via computer feeder as cornmeal and a protein supplement according to production levels.

That means some of his herd gets only a high-quality forage, which is usually fed as a 60%-corn silage, 40%-haylage TMR.

He mixes his 50:50 silage corn blend – a brown midrib (BMR) hybrid with a conventional silage corn – right in the field. “I just put one bag each in every other hopper when I set my planter up,” says Marchaland, who likes the quality he gets with BMR but uses his planting method to hedge on possible standability problems.

His haylage is an endophyte-free tall fescue with various alfalfa-grass mixes at a 60:40 ratio.

“This summer I was short on corn, so to make it last until this harvest, I actually had to feed 60% haylage and 40% corn silage. It went okay. I think I make a little more money with the higher corn. And I had to bump up my cornmeal vs. my protein supplement.”

Marchaland gradually made his move to more forage and less grain. He’d constantly see a cow that was fresh for more than six months but producing under 60 lbs of milk per day. “Every time I gave her grain, it didn’t make any money,” he says.

Last winter, his high-forage strategy went “extreme,” he says, “mostly because the tank was overflowing. I usually sell cows every fall and I couldn’t get a price for them. I said, ‘Well, I’ll just milk them and just keep taking grain away until the tank was just full.

“I took half my grain away and the tank stayed full.” That’s when he went to the 10-lbs-milk-to-1-lb-grain ratio from what was probably 6:1.

The producer and his nutritionist set up parameters for which cows do and don’t get grain. A fresh cow will get about 12-14 lbs of grain the first four months regardless of production. “If she gives 100 lbs her next test, she’ll get a higher level of grain, which is up to 20-22 lbs/day.” If she’s under that 60-lb level, the grain disappears from her diet.

First-calf heifers get grain for six months just to put some weight on them. They, too, lose grain rights if production is under 60 lbs.

Having well-processed corn silage is a key part to that strategy, he adds. “It made a big difference when we went to a processor six or eight years ago. That added 5 lbs of milk right there. And the BMR corn was another 5 lbs.”

His herd average is hurt a little by the calving schedule, Marchaland thinks. “Our days in milk are longer than most.” About 60% of calving happens from August through December, then more in March and April and the rest in June, which works with weather conditions and haying season.

“Now (early September), we’re 240 days in milk. We usually drop down to about 60 lbs (of milk per cow). In the winter we’ll run 70-75 lbs.”

The herd is also rotationally grazed on 35 acres of mostly grass with some alfalfa and clover. Marchaland calls the area his exercise lot.

To keep track of how well cows digest rations, he watches their manure.

“If it gets thick, I figure I’m a little short on protein and I’ll bump that up in the feeders. If it’s loose, I’ll take some protein away.

“I’ll try to go six months without any ration changes. But I might change the protein weekly or monthly just depending if I’ve fed different haylage. Then I test it occasionally.”

His cows, like Benware’s, are all healthier and produce higher butterfat. “The cows that get the grain have the poorest butterfat,” he says.

Small dairies with high-forage diets have the edge over operations that rely heavily on grain, Marchaland adds. “When the price of grain went up, it was actually a small-farm savior. It makes us more competitive with those mega dairies that are all-purchased-feed operations.” Grain, corn silage and haylage costs have doubled, he says.

Marchaland’s biggest concern today is whether he’ll plug his cows up with “super” forage.

“We actually got in trouble a month ago. We had some alfalfa-red clover-reed canarygrass mix. It was third cutting and a 30-day cut, and it was just way too rich for them. The manure got loose like it does on spring pasture. They actually dropped 2 or 3 lbs.

“You can’t do anything in extreme,” he adds.