Charlie Sniffen is an outspoken, hardworking nutritionist passionate about telling others about the value of adding more forages – especially grasses – to dairy diets.

This New Hampshire-based nutritionist, known for his work at Michigan State, Cornell and the W.H. Miner Institute, and currently an independent consultant, spoke last winter at a Penn State forage meeting. During that meeting, in each of his three talks, he used the same idyllic-sounding phrase: “It’s the year of the forage.”

“What,” I asked him in a phone call recently, “did you mean by that?”

“When you have $9 and $10 milk and high prices on grain, it’s the year of the forage,” he answered. “We’re not seeing cheap feeds anymore, so our least expensive feeds will become the forages that we grow – if we do it right,” he adds.

It’s about time forage, including grasses, took center stage in dairy diets. For decades, some dairy producers have looked at forage as a necessary evil rather than as the highly digestible, fiber-rich source it is.

My new friend Charlie agrees. “I can’t tell you how many dairymen I’ve run into with the mentality that forage is a pain in the neck.”

But that’s slowly changing, as is the attitude that adding grasses to rotations and rations is something to be done apologetically.

“I was at an evening meeting,” Charlie recalls, “when this dairyman came up and literally whispered in my ear, ‘Is it all right to grow grasses?’

“People are beginning to wake up and say, ‘Maybe this grass ... maybe we can feed this?’ ”

Universities and nutritionists can share the blame of focusing on grain and ignoring forages, he adds.

“We’ve got ourselves into feeding grain and all our research at our universities has been grain-oriented – not on how we best utilize forages.”

That’s slowly changing, and New York, Michigan and Wisconsin researchers are leading the charge touting the benefits of grasses and high-forage diets.

And nutritionists, himself included, says Charlie, have for too long fed what was safe.

They know they can add easily another 5-7% of forage into rations, but worry about its moisture content or quality, thinking the variability will throw rations off balance.

“We don’t know what is going to go into that mixer wagon the next day; we may not get back there for a week or two. So we cover our rear ends and say, ‘ This is the minimum amount of forage we’re going to feed and still keep the cows alive without overdoing it.’ We tend to underfeed forage because of the variability of the material coming out of those silos.

“However, that paradigm shifted this last year and a half to: ‘Maybe we should be feeding more forage to keep this farmer alive and also pay the feed bill.’

“It’s the year of the forage,” he adds. “If we’re ever going to do something, it’s now.”

So turn these pages and see how feeding more forages – including grasses – can make a difference to your cows’ health as well as your financial health.