With increasing prices to buy or rent land and greater pressure from cash crop production, it's about time for Wisconsin dairy farmers to begin thinking about double- and triple-cropping their land to provide the kinds of forages they need to keep their dairy businesses going.
Getting greater tonnage from each acre of land is a way to get more milk from the same acreage but it also reduces the fixed cost per ton of feed harvested, says Tim Huffman of Peak Dairy Consulting and Peak Forage Solutions in Hollandale.
He was one of the featured speakers at a series of Byron Seed workshops held around the state Jan. 7-11.
Seed blends and high-performance forages like brown mid-rib (BMR) sorghum-sudangrass and forage sorghums are being used successfully in Wisconsin to get high tonnage per acre for dairy farms.
Huffman says that while many Wisconsin farmers are still in a mindset of producing corn and alfalfa, more of them could benefit from pursuing the vision he began to follow a few years ago.
On the Kurvin Zimmerman dairy operation Huffman works with near Livingston, the entire 88-acre farm is covered with crops 12 months of the year.
"It's white now with snow, but underneath that, everything is green," he quipped during a session in Arlington at the University Wisconsin's research farm on Tuesday (Jan. 8.)
Zimmerman milks 75 cows and raises 75 head of young stock. Huffman said their goal is to raise the highest tonnage and digestibility forage they can from the farm's working land.
They utilize spring forages, summer annuals and several innovative blends to get as much food for the cows as they can. Last fall they planted 20 forages to be harvested this spring.
Using a scale on the farm, every crop is weighed and measured and data is collected for Huffman to analyze. They also track temperature, rainfall and humidity to add to the data stream.
He believes dairy farmers can "unlock profits from high-energy forages."
Hay prices are high today, not only because Wisconsin experienced a serious drought, but also because the major hay-producing states of South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Idaho, Colorado and Iowa also had serious droughts last year.
This situation calls for farmers to look at some new ideas to address the forage shortfall, Huffman said.
The typical cookie-cutter high-starch corn and high-protein alfalfa diet is easy to balance but "can be very hard on the check book of dairies," he said.
He believes that dairies can benefit from double-cropping with highly digestible forages that produce good sugar levels for cows to turn into milk.
Spring forages can be harvested in less than 100 days and summer annual crops can be planted after the fall- or spring-planted forages come off the land. Corn can be planted after one crop of forage is harvested.
A mixture of oats and peas is a very good crop to plants after wheat comes off, he said.
Huffman outlined the documented performance of a fall triticale/ryegrass mix that produced tons of dry matter per acre that rivaled alfalfa and quality that was better than a good alfalfa crop.
Another crop farmers might want to consider is the brown mid-rib (BMR) forage sorghums. One of these was planted after the triticale/ryegrass feed was removed. It produced 6.2-5.2 tons per acre, depending on the plot.
Together those two crops provided anywhere from 9.15-10.95 tons of very good dry matter per acre, Huffman said.
He has switched out the planter plates on a six-row John Deere corn planter with sorghum plates for about $150 and uses that to plant different varieties of forage sorghums on the Zimmerman plots.
HIGH ENERGY FORAGES
Forage crops like the BMR sorghum-sudangrass and forage sorghum he referred to use one-half to two-thirds of the water required by corn and less fertilizer than the more conventional crop requires.
"If you've got the perfect place to raise corn, you probably should raise corn," says Larry Hawkins, a regional manager for Byron Seeds who organized the meeting series. "But on soils that aren't perfect farmers might want to raise some of these other crops.
"You don't need perfect soil to raise sorghum."
Other crops that fit into the kinds of 12-month cropping system Huffman works with include triticale/ryegrass mixtures, fall triticale/wheat plantings, Forage Plus oats and peas and others.
Hawkins explains that while alfalfa became the forage of choice in the United States, farmers aren't really able to grow it in Europe. There progress continued on refining and improving grasses and now those improved varieties are coming here.
"Every one of the grasses we use is of European origin," Hawkins said.
As farmers begin to grow more of these kinds of crops, Hawkins said the seed supply will continue to be tight. "We sold all we could get last year and we will do the same this year."
Another featured speaker at the seed series was Dr. Rick Grant, a leading researcher on forages, fiber and carbohydrate nutrition in dairy cows. The Miner Institute is Chazy, NY, is a private dairy and crop research farm with a 400-head dairy herd.
The institute's farm campus provides intensive hands-on experience for dairy science students from Cornell University and the University of Vermont. Grant, a nutritionist there, is also president of the 100-year-old institute.
His expertise is in forages and cow behavior. Though the Miner Institute works chiefly with dairy cattle, they also have horses and work with equine nutrition, he said.
Grant said that if these high-energy forages are raised and fed properly, they can be a valuable addition to the dairy ration and they have agronomic benefits as well, requiring less fertilizer and water.
These forages have been talked about for a long time, he said, but farmers didn't need to think much about them because corn and hay were cheap.
"This is a teachable moment with corn prices through the roof," he said.
The price of corn has farmers talking about using higher levels of forage in their diets. "Fifty percent forage diets for cows are not an unrealistic goal and farmers here at these meetings are already doing 55-60 percent forage diets. Some are asking if we can go as high as 70-80 percent forage in the diet.
"A few years ago no one talked about that," Grant said.
The European improvements in grass production have produced plants that remain in a vegetative state longer, meaning they don't head out, which makes them much better for forage production, he said.
Recent work on BMR sorghums and sorghum-sudangrasses has pinpointed a gene that gives some varieties a better profile as forage. This "gene 6" is something farmers should look for if they are considering planting a forage sorghum plant.
Hawkins said that soon the "gene 6" genetics will replace all of the conventional sorghum-sudangrass that farmers are used to planting.
Grant said that crops like the older varieties were considered "filler" and okay to feed to heifers or dry cows, but were not thought of much as feed for the high-producing dairy cow.
Today, that is changing. Hawkins notes that the plant varieties have evolved and plant breeders have increased their yields, their forage profiles and their standability.
Grant said that in his research trials on dairy cows in mid-lactation, BMR sorghum compared favorably with corn silage. There was no real difference in dry matter intake between the two groups and no difference in milk composition.
The newer forage sorghums have a low lignin trait and greater NDF digestibility. He found that cows did not take fat off their back with the sorghum feed and produced more milk. "It's really more efficient.
"The economic consequences on the farm are tremendous. You can get the same or more milk from each pound of intake."
Grant found that higher producing cows responded better to the high-energy sorghum diets than did the group of lower-producing late-lactation cows.
"High-quality forages do not assure high milk production," he said, "but low quality guarantees low milk production.
"You can feed a higher forage diet without sacrificing milk production or milk components."