Tim Huffman, a private nutritionist and dairy consultant, has been working with several of his clients to produce research results on the concept of feeding dairy cows with annual forages, cover crops and other non-traditional forages.
Huffman was part of a program sponsored by Byron Seeds in Arlington, the first of a series of meetings the company held around the state.
Working with dairy farmers Kurvin Zimmerman in southwest Wisconsin, Huffman said they are almost to their goal of raising all the forage needed for the farm's dairy herd.
They are utilizing spring forages and summer annuals but drought conditions for the last two summers have hurt their progress, he told the group of dairy farmers and nutritionists in Arlington.
Because of the drought they have been "continually chasing forages." In addition to the loss of productivity from drought, last year they experienced icing on their fields, which killed 55 acres of alfalfa and triticale.
The farm was short 11.3 inches of rain in 2012. Last year, there was an excess of 13 inches of rain from April through June. But drought returned in the summer and they ended the year 1.1 inches short of rain.
The farm is still "abnormally dry" as rated by the national drought monitor.
Huffman keeps meticulous records on heat and rainfall on the plots and noted that in 2012 every day from July 1-13 was over 90 degrees.
He said he focuses on forage production because feed costs have traditionally been 50 percent of the cost of production for dairy farmers. Today he figures that it's closer to 60 percent.
At the Zimmerman farm they currently have 20 fall-planted plots of forage for spring harvest. They are managing their forage needs, he said, by "thinking beyond corn silage and alfalfa."
Huffman said he "isn't advocating abandoning corn silage and alfalfa" but thinks farmers need to consider their production of "digestible tons per acre" of material along with starch digestibility.
Getting more out of each acre of land in the form of highly digestible forage crops is one way to get that feed cost for a dairy farm back down to 50 percent of the cost of production.
Huffman advocates using land 12 months out of the year — a way to produce more dairy feed and also to build biomass in the soil. Reducing the days that the land stands idle helps make the farm more profitable, he said.
"Why now? Because of high feed costs and periodic drought and new seed options." In addition, there's a better understanding these days about these new crops and how to plant them and feed the resulting forages.
The last seven years have seen farmers facing corn prices over $4.50 a bushel, which is tough on farmers who have to buy feed for their livestock. Soybean meal in the last year and a half has shown escalating prices, he said, and milk prices have been fairly flat compared to the price of inputs on the farm.
Cows don't have a requirement for starch, Huffman said, they have a requirement for glucose and farmers need to sharpen their pencils and calculate what it's costing them to raise their forages and feed their cows.
Huffman showed calculations for production of various forages in both a rented land and purchased land scenario.
At the Zimmerman farm manure is generally used as the main fertilizer and Huffman urged farmers to have their manure analyzed to know what is actually in it to feed the next crop.
For some of their crops they purchase nitrogen to get crops started. "If you don't spend money on that nitrogen you'll be spending money at the feed mill."
One of the crops they have grown there is triticale and oats planted in late summer. He calculated that in two cuttings of this crop they got 4 ½ tons of dry matter per acre at a cost of $94 per ton of dry matter and a digestible NDF of 61.6 percent.
Another of the crops utilized by Huffman is a triticale and rye grass forage crop planted in the fall and harvested in the spring. Also in his tool bag is alfalfa mixed with grass like tall fescue.
Huffman said that the alfalfa blends cost $50 less per ton of dry matter to grow than straight alfalfa.
"If we double crop and increase the tons per acre we can feed our cows with fewer acres," he said.
Summer annuals also have a place in adding to the efficiency of feeding cows. Huffman said he's learned a lot in the last two years of growing and feeding crops like forage sorghum and sorghum/sudangrass.
Farmers, he said, need to "control the controllable" and put up the best quality forages to improve their bottom line.