Switching from low to high TMR forage levels can improve milk production and cow health, but you need big inventories of high-quality forages to do it.

That's why Pete and Mike McMahon of Homer, NY, started focusing on forage production five years ago. The changes began shortly after they hired Tom Tylutki as their nutritionist.

“I wasn't happy with where we were — with production, with cow health, the whole picture,” Pete recalls.

“We were suffering from severe acidosis in the herd from too little forage and too much grain,” adds Mike. “We were losing cows to fatty liver disease, foot problems, cows wouldn't breed back — everything that comes with acidosis.”

Milk production had dropped to 21,000 lbs/cow, and the cull rate was 42%. Working with Tylutki, the brothers began to increase ration forage levels.

Forages accounted for just over 40% of their milking rations in 1999. Since then they've been as high as 60%, and the results have been dramatic.

“We've seen improvements in everything from production and cow health to even conception rates,” Pete reports.

Currently, the McMahons' 665 registered Holsteins average 26,000 lbs/cow without BST, and the cull rate is a third lower, at just under 30%. With fewer health problems, cows are staying in the herd longer. Two cows, in fact, have more than 200,000 lbs of lifetime milk production.

Major changes in forage production and management played a major role. The brothers used to grow mostly alfalfa-grass mixtures. Now they grow the two separately, in fields best-suited to each type of crop. They have 400 acres of alfalfa in the valley where the dairy is located, and 260 acres of reed canarygrass and orchardgrass on the hills.

They also became more fussy about the way they harvest the forages, aiming for maximum NDF levels of 45% for alfalfa and 55% for grass. They cut on a strict schedule — every 28 days for grass, every 35 days for alfalfa — and it's all cut at the same time.

To speed harvest, they bought bigger equipment, including a self-propelled chopper, and often bring in a custom harvester to help.

“It all has to be done at the same time to keep our quality consistent,” says Pete. “Dairy cows love consistency.”

They used to store hay silage by cutting; now the alfalfa and grass are put in separate bunkers. Presently, the grass silage is fed only to non-lactating animals. At times, it works well to use some grass silage in milking rations. But last spring's wet weather delayed the first grass cutting, and they weren't able to stay under their 55% NDF limit.

Bad weather the past two growing seasons has hurt alfalfa quality, too, forcing them to temporarily reduce forage feeding. Milking-ration forage levels are at 51% now (two-thirds corn silage and one-third haylage). But Tylutki plans to increase them again when quality improves.

He figures cows can be fed 1% of their bodyweight as forage NDF, more if the forages are very high in quality.

“I'm working with another herd where I'm doing 56% forage right now, and I think we can get into the low 60s easily and maintain 80-85 lbs of milk,” says Tylutki.

“With phenomenal forage quality, we can go higher. I don't know what the upper limit would be. Some grazing herds do really well on milk production, and they're in the 80s and approaching 90% forage.”