Mixed forage plantings create ration balancing challenges for dairy producers

Planting mixed forages can have significant variation across the field. Variation of feedstuffs causes problems in dairy ration balancing.

Drought throughout much of the country last summer greatly limited the yield of forages produced. Diversion of forage acres to corn and poor forage production has led to extremely low quantities of carry-over forage. The small supply of forages has driven prices to historic highs and is greatly challenging the profitability of dairy operations across the United States. Alfalfa winter kill rates have been reported throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario at nearly 50 percent. All of these conditions, compounded by a cool spring that delayed forage plant growth, have created a situation causing concern among dairy farmers regarding their ability to produce adequate quantities of high quality forage and potentially exorbitantly high prices for those needing to buy forages.

Many dairy producers are evaluating the possibilities and options of planting alternative forages to meet forage needs and increase harvest supplies. Annual forages are a popular choice in an attempt to harvest high yields with adequate quality. Small grains, millets, sorghums and legumes, such as forage variety soybeans and field peas, are some of the options available. Some of these crops can be incorporated into a double cropping system for extra yields of forage. Corn silage is typically the highest yielding forage crop available. While corn silage is an excellent feedstuff to incorporate into high producing dairy cow rations, it is best suited to be fed with other forage sources. Corn silage is higher in starch content and lower in protein than other high quality forages. Corn silage fits best blended with high quality legumes or small grains harvested in the boot stage.

Experts from Michigan State University Extension recommend that forages intended for high producing dairy cows should be planted as a single species. Planting two or more crops together can result in a forage stand that has variability. Mixed species forages that lack uniformity create sampling and testing challenges that can lead to rations that are improperly balanced and have day-to-day variation.

Combining multiple forage species into dairy rations can be beneficial in balancing rations, as they frequently complement one another. Ration adjustments are more easily made using feed tests of single species crops rather than dealing with the variation associated with multiple species grown together.

Dairy producers across the country are being challenged to produce or procure adequate quantities of high quality forage. Finding production systems to economically produce forages that can be used to maintain high production levels will be critical to the success of dairy farms in the near future.

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