Dairy farmers looking for forages to replace alfalfa

Many dairy farms across the Midwest are short of alfalfa. Finding an acceptable alternative forage will be a critical factor contributing to the success of dairy operations this next year.

Alfalfa forage compliments corn silage in dairy cow lactation rations better than most any other forage available in the United States. Many dairy producers across the Midwest have had difficulties harvesting adequate quantities of high quality alfalfa forage due to 2012 drought and 2013 winter kill. Consequently, dairy producers are looking for alternative forages to ensure adequate forage yields to feed cattle through the next year.

During the spring of 2013, some dairy farmers were harvesting winter wheat to feed to dairy cattle. Wheat silage is best used in dry cow and heifer rations, especially if it has matured into the milk or dough stages. Wheat silage contains more fiber and less protein than alfalfa. Some producers have been including boot stag wheat silage into high producing lactation rations without sacrificing milk production in replacement of alfalfa while eliminating fiber sources such as straw from the ration.

Various other forage cropping options are available to dairy producers attempting to increase forage inventory. Producers in locations that have experienced excessive rainfall and delayed row crop planting, can plant sorghum sudangrass until about July 15. Sorghum sudangrass is available in brown midrib (BMR) varieties and is more comparable to corn silage than alfalfa.

There are also opportunities to double crop forage plantings behind winter wheat grain harvest this summer. Michigan State University Extension recommends planting single species crops for high producing lactating cows. Several options are available to plant after wheat. Oats can be planted and harvested as silage with similar feeding results and recommendations as wheat silage.

Another option is to plant a forage type soybean. Research utilizing soybeans as forage is very limited. Forage soybean feed analysis indicate protein and fiber values to be nearly comparable to alfalfa: protein 18-20 percent, NDF 38-46 percent, and ADF 28-34 percent. The soybeans in this study were planted with an objective to harvest as a high quality forage. Soybeans that are weather damaged or frozen before reaching maturity will not produce high quality forage. Soybeans should be harvested just before the R7 stage; occurs when one pod of the main stem contains mature seeds. Another concern is the limited list of pesticides approved for use on soybeans destined to be harvested for livestock feed. As with all cropping options, pesticide application must be approved to be used on crops destined for livestock feed.

Planting a combination of peas and oats can produce high quality feed. Due to the potential for crop stand variability, it is not recommended as a feed for lactating cows. Crop stand variability can create a challenge to deliver consistent diets to the cows. Peas and oats can be an excellent feed for dry cows and heifers, allowing producers to save alfalfa for lactating cows.

Given the conditions seen across much of the Midwest, demand for high quality alfalfa is greater than the current available supply. Finding methods to harvest more forage that fit into the feeding regime of a dairy farm could be the most important economic decision that producers will face this year. For more information regarding harvesting forages to increase feed supply on dairy farms, contact me at wardynsk@anr.msu.edu or 906-884-4386.

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