The author is a dairy nutritional consultant and freelance agricultural writer based out of Connecticut.

Dairy farmers who grow their own forages should focus on diversity. Throughout the eastern United States, perennial grasses such as orchardgrass, timothy, reed canarygrass, and fescue are commonly used for animal feeds. Alfalfa is also being grown in many areas of the Northeast. More farmers are now double cropping with small grains such as winter rye along with triticale — a wheat-rye hybrid. All of these forages can be either baled or ensiled. Each one is an excellent feed when harvested in the early vegetative stage. Timing is everything when it comes to harvesting forages.

Maturity matters

Forages — like all things living — are genetically programmed to complete a life cycle. Biologically, they have only one purpose — to grow, mature, and reproduce. Within the greater context of a more complex biosystem, forages provide food to a host of different animal species and habitat to many more.

As forages grow and mature, stems must become thicker and stronger in order for the plant to support itself. Stem material undergoes a process called lignification as the cellulose and protein weaves into tighter matrices to become more rigid. Lignin is nearly indigestible in ruminants and other forage-consuming species.

During the maturation process in all types of vegetation, smaller proteins and simple sugars in the young plant are converted to more complex carbohydrates that become stems, flowers, and seeds. When forages are young and they have a larger leaf-to-stem ratio, they are much more digestible for animals. Forages in the early vegetative stage can have crude protein levels over 20 percent on a dry matter basis and sugar levels over 10 percent. These nutrients feed the bacteria and protozoa that are necessary for feed fermentation in the rumen.

Baleage makes sense

In Mansfield, Conn., dairy farmer Tom Wells and his family milk about 60 cows that average over 70 pounds of milk per cow throughout the year. He grows corn silage that is ensiled as well as perennial grasses, alfalfa-grass mixes, rye, and triticale. Wells prefers to put all of his hay crop forages into baleage. For his size of operation and since he raises a variety of forages on small parcels, baleage works better than storing the forages in silos or trench pits of which he would have to have a dozen of them to keep the forages separated.

Raising forages for milk production is no easy task in New England. Wells does his best to stay ahead of the weather and get hay mowed and baled before it gets too mature. He understands the importance of growing high-quality forage but is quick to admit that there’s never any guarantee that a given cutting will be milk-cow quality. He also faces the same challenges as many do with first cuttings always being mowed on the late side and testing low in protein. Later cuttings are, hopefully, better.

“We’d like to believe we have a plan and a strategy for getting everything done on time,” he said. “But most of the time we have to take whatever we get and work with it as best we can.”

Having alfalfa or some clover (legumes) available in dairy cow diets is often helpful for milk production. The amino acid profiles in legumes is preferable to ordinary grasses and grains. Wells has been growing alfalfa-grass mixes for many years. A few years ago he planted an alfalfa-fescue mix on some rented land. The fescue never came up, but the alfalfa did great. Over the years, all the alfalfa stands eventually are infiltrated with grasses, and pure stands of alfalfa are difficult to maintain in New England.

Happy with triticale

Wells started experimenting with triticale a number of years ago. As is the case with all small grain forages, the plant has maximum quality in the early vegetative stage. Triticale is proving to be a small grain forage that does well in the Northeast, maintaining both sugar and protein even while it’s going to seed. Wells has also had good luck with a triticale-Italian ryegrass blend — harvesting it when the grain was heading out and in the milk stage.

According to Wells’ foreman, Fred McNeely, the base ration for the milk cows is typically formulated with 20 pounds of dry matter (DM) corn silage and a minimum of 10 to 12 pounds of DM hay crop forages. McNeely notes that the cows consume significantly more of the triticale forages resulting in a diet with a total forage DM well over 60 percent of the ration and a milk production average of over 80 pounds per cow.

Maintaining consistently high-quality forages on dairy farms can be a challenge. Consider keeping a variety of forage options available for the herd throughout the year. Learning which forages work the best on your land and being willing to experiment with different types of crops will help keep milk in the tank all year long.

This article appeared in the January 2017 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 32.

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