Joe Heese and his colleagues at Farm Partners Supply believe alfalfa can be profitable enough to grow on their rich Iowa farmland.

“In dollars per acre, it'll compete favorably with corn and soybeans,” says Heese, the Harlan, IA, farming partnership's hay operations manager. “But our land value is too high to make grinding hay. We're going after the No. 1 quality. That's our primary focus, and we need all the scientific tools to make it happen.”

That's one reason the partnership bought its own forage-testing equipment in June 2005. Another was to gain a competitive advantage in the dairy hay market.

“We wanted to do something nobody else does,” says Heese. “We can put a piece of paper in every truck that leaves the farm saying what the hay tests that day. We can also test our equipment, our production practices and predict cutting dates.”

Farm Partners Supply invested about $60,000 in the testing equipment, including an NIR analyzer from Perten Instruments, Inc., Springfield, IL; a gram scale; a grinder; and a microwave oven for drying wet samples. They hired Dairyland Laboratories, Arcadia, WI, to help develop and maintain their NIR calibrations.

The testing procedure is fairly simple. Heese grinds a dry hay sample to a fine powder, measures a small amount onto a petri dish, and slides the dish into the analyzer. Results appear on a screen almost instantly.

“A little guidance and training are needed, of course,” says Heese. “And you have to be conscientious and particular because it doesn't take much to sway the results. You have to do everything exactly the same every time. Even if you just shake the petri dish a little bit or something like that, you'll change the sample.”

Testing takes less than 10 minutes, but drying wet samples lengthens the process. Microwave drying of scissor-cut samples, done at low heat to prevent burning, takes several hours. Last year, Heese bought a food dehydrator that can do the job faster with less babysitting.

He worked closely with Perten Instruments and Dairyland Labs early on when his system was being calibrated. In 2006, he periodically sent samples to the lab for retesting to make sure his results were accurate. If he was having a problem, he talked by phone with a lab representative. “In two or three minutes we got it zeroed back in,” he reports.

With the ability to get same-day forage-test results, Heese is evaluating every aspect of the partnership's haying operation for its impact on hay quality.

“We're doing everything we can to take as many negatives as possible out of the equation,” he says.

His first priority is to “nail cutting dates.” He tests scissor-cut samples frequently — sometimes daily — to learn how fast alfalfa quality drops after bud stage under various soil types, fertility levels, etc. Detailed records are kept on every field. He's learned that, while most fields should be cut at 26- to 28-day intervals, more fertile fields should be cut as often as every 21 days.

Quality is impacted by weather, too. During a dry spell last summer, for example, relative feed value (RFV) dropped 10 points per day. Then two days after a rain, it was 20 points higher.

Different types of cutting machines were compared in a side-by-side test in 2005. Each type made two windrows, then every windrow was tested for RFV at 24-hour intervals. Last year, different-colored twine was put in each big square baler to compare the quality of hay coming out of those machines.

Rakes have been adjusted based on NIR findings, and employees operating the haying equipment are urged to drive at the same speed.

“Consistency across the field is the key,” says Heese.

The partners have also used the NIR equipment to evaluate the performance of six propane-powered hay dryers purchased in 2005. They bought the dryers and testing equipment hoping to increase the amount of high-quality hay produced.

Their 2006 goal was to sell 75% of their production as either dairy- or horse-quality hay. They ended up with 60% high-quality hay because of weather problems.

The partnership harvested just over 2,000 acres of hay last year, up from 1,400 acres in 2005, and is planning another increase in 2007. But Heese believes on-farm forage testing could pay for itself in smaller operations, too. If frequent testing helps a grower harvest 200 RFV hay instead of 150-160, that could translate into a $30-40/ton gain, he says.

“We've made a lot of decisions based on our NIR machine,” says Heese. “I think it's a wonderful investment.”

On-Farm Testing Takes Commitment

Successful on-farm NIR forage testing requires a long-term financial commitment plus access to technical support, says Dave Taysom, president of Dairyland Laboratories, Inc., Arcadia, WI.

“The cost of the equipment is one aspect of it,” says Taysom. “But developing and maintaining the calibration is every bit of an investment as the instrument. Over the long run, it'll cost just as much.”

NIR equations must be developed for the specific type of hay to be tested, he says. If more than one type, or hay from different geographic areas, will be tested, multiple sets of equations may be needed. Then the calibrations must be continually monitored to ensure accurate test results.

“In the early years, people just bought these instruments, plugged them in and never did anything after that, and that just did not work,” says Taysom.

His lab does NIR and wet chemistry testing and also provides technical support under contract for Farm Partners Supply and other forage testing entities. He expects to see more farmers or groups of farmers setting up their own testing labs.

“We see the industry going that direction if all the pieces can be put together,” says Taysom.

“They need to do their homework and research before they decide to do something like that,” he adds. “It all boils down to if they can justify the cost and also have access to the expertise to make it work.”

Use Certified Forage-Testing Labs

Most operations can't afford their own forage-testing equipment. All the more reason dairymen and hay growers should be choosy about where they get their forages tested. The National Forage Testing Association (NFTA) offers a laboratory certification program that can help.

Visit the NFTA Web site, www.foragetesting.org, and click on Certified Labs. Then download the list of laboratories that have undergone certification and see if the lab or labs you use appear.

Certified labs have “proven the ability to produce accurate test results over time utilizing recognized reference methods,“ according to NFTA.

To learn how NFTA is improving its program, see our November 2006 issue story, entitled “Caught In The Middle," page 6.