Protein continues to be an expensive, yet critical component of a dairy cow’s diet. That situation isn’t likely to change. With dairy farmers facing slimmer margins between profit and cost of production, the need for an affordable source of protein is growing as well.

According to Nathan Hrnicek, forage products specialist for Vita Plus, and Stacy Nichols, dairy technical specialist for Vita Plus, utilizing high-quality alfalfa in rations can help improve margins by having to purchase less protein feedstuffs. They offered their thoughts in an article posted on the Vita Plus website.

Alfalfa quality is derived from protein content, fiber content, and fiber digestibility. Though the fiber components and quality often get the headlines, let’s not totally disregard protein content.

Based on samples submitted to Rock River Laboratory from 2016 to 2018, the top 15 percent of alfalfa samples had a crude protein (CP) of 23.2 percent, a neutral detergent fiber (NDF) of 38.8 percent, undigestible NDF after 48 hours (uNDF48) of 16.8 percent, and a uNDF after 240 hours (uNDF240) of 13.1 percent.

How do you get your alfalfa into that top 15 percent?

It all starts with management. The authors suggest asking yourself the following questions:

Am I treating my alfalfa like it’s a valuable crop?

Do I plan a progressive management system that includes variety selection, fertility, weed management, herbicide and pesticide application, and preharvest scouting?

Am I minimizing leaf and protein losses during harvest and storage?

Producers who answer yes to these questions are those who consistently achieve 23 percent CP and higher fiber digestibility in their alfalfa crop.

Preharvest scouting is where it all starts. “Scout fields to see if a fungicide application is warranted,” the authors share. They also recommend that if leaf loss was observed in previous harvests, a fungicide application will most likely help.

Reducing the number of times alfalfa is handled and using roller conditions and mergers will also help lower leaf loss.

Between days 18 to 21, take scissor clippings to determine CP levels. While in the bud stage, alfalfa can lose about 0.25 to 0.5 percentage points in CP per day.

“Plan accordingly, get rid of the calendar, and harvest those plants when they tell you it’s time,” the authors advise.

They also recommend using a high-quality upfront fermenter to help with a rapid pH drop during storage, as well as to prevent the breakdown of proteins.

To further show the benefits of high-quality alfalfa, the authors formulated three rations for high-producing dairy cows (see table below).

Corn silage comprises 35 percent of the ration on a dry matter (DM) basis. Haylage was used in the ration based on quality with the final rations having forage levels of 57, 52, and 47 percent.

When compared to rations containing average- and low-quality haylage, high-quality haylage rations had a reduced cost of feed per cow per day since it didn’t require added feedstuffs to meet the cows’ nutritional needs.

The average- and low-quality rations resulted in a 20-cent and 51-cent additional cost, respectively.

This comparison shows that using proactive and intense management strategies to produce high-quality alfalfa, and having enough acres to accommodate higher levels of forage in rations, can help producers widen their margins.

Kassidy Buse

Kassidy Buse is serving as the 2018 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern. She is from Bridgewater, S.D., and recently graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in animal science. Buse will be attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to pursue a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition this fall.