A concerted effort to improve forage quality paid off in higher milk production, better herd health and lower feed costs for Tom Swyers, Perry, NY.

Swyers runs Gardeau Crest Farm with his wife Yvonne and son Daniel. Their 1,300 — cow herd is averaging 24,500 lbs of milk sold on rations that are up to 57% forages. But their haylage hasn't always been good enough to feed at high levels.

Back in 1996, they found out that they weren't sufficiently field-drying their alfalfa haylage, and it was going into their bunkers at 70% moisture and even higher.

“We had just bought a self-propelled chopper and were in a hurry to get it done,” Tom Swyers recalls.

Fermentation analysis revealed high levels of acetic and butyric acids, and low levels of lactic acid.

“It was affecting their feed intake and milk production,” says their nutritionist, Bob Kozlowski of Advanced Dairy Services.

There also were hoof and ketosis problems and a more-serious condition characterized by a deterioration of the lower gut lining and internal bleeding. Called hemorrhagic bowel syndrome, it's caused by clostridia, which thrive in wet forages. They were losing a few cows a year because of it.

Milking-ration forage levels were just over 40% then, and Kozlowski told the Swyers that needed to change.

“Our goal was to push more forage into the cows, for a lot of reasons — health was toward the top of the list,” says Kozlowski. “The only way to get that done was to get drier haylage.”

The Swyers became more patient, letting alfalfa wilt longer and chopping at no more than 65% moisture. Often in recent years, the moisture content has been five or 10 percentage points lower than that.

“It's a waiting game,” Kozlowski states. “They had to wait a little longer to fire up the chopper.”

At about the same time, they began using a PEAQ stick to pinpoint the best time to cut. That's been a helpful tool, especially on first cutting and when cool or hot weather alters alfalfa's normal growth pattern. And they adjusted the chop length upward, but not to an extreme.

“We wanted to make it a little bit longer to improve the effective fiber of the rations,” Kozlowski reports.

But the biggest change was in bunker packing. With drier forage and longer chop lengths came the need to apply more weight, and the Swyers made a solid commitment to increase silage density. Previously, just one big tractor was used for packing. Now there are always three, and drivers are urged to pack continuously as loads come in.

“We set a goal of 800 lbs of tractor weight per ton of haylage per hour, and we've been achieving all of that,” says the nutritionist. “At times we're up to 1,000 lbs/ton/hour.”

Fermentation monitoring revealed that, a year after the changes were implemented, haylage lactic acid levels were up, acetic acid was down and butyric acid had been eliminated.

Ration forage levels were steadily increased, and the cows responded with higher dry matter intakes and production.

“Production has been stronger over the last several years,” says Kozlowski. “Things are a lot more consistent in the cows. We're not getting the variability of manure, intakes are more stable and we captured some economics from the fact that we can feed more forage and still maintain high production levels.”

Hoof problems and ketosis cases are way down, and the internal bleeding condition has disappeared.

For the past two years, ration forage levels have been running around 53% for high groups, 57% for lower groups.

“I think we've hit our maximum level, at least for high groups,” says Kozlowski.

The forage portion of high-producing rations is 60% processed corn silage and 40% haylage. Those rations also contain a small amount of dry hay, plus corn meal, soybean meal, cottonseed, SoyPlus, urea, fat, molasses and other minor ingredients.

Kozlowski says the Swyers' experiences point out the importance of high-quality forages in dairy feeding programs.

“They've made a tremendous improvement in forage quality that we've been able to put in front of the cows and see some nice improvements in performance.”

“We're pretty satisfied with where we're at right now,” Swyers adds.