Using alternative forages in dairy rations

Gloria Hafemeister
Keeping waterers and feed alleys clean as well as mixing equipment is important for keeping a healthy herd and encouraging feed and water intake.

NEOSHO – Alfalfa, for generations of dairy farmers, has been seen as the primary feed for productive dairy cows. Recently, however, following some challenges with winterkilled alfalfa, some farmers have been looking at alternative forages that provide the crude protein, neutral detergent fiber and total digestible nutrients needed by their herds.

Recently, Matt Atkins, UW-Madison Extension dairy nutrition specialist spoke in Neosho and noted the increased interest in cover crops and double cropping has also led to interest in a variety of forages. He shared the latest research with a gathering of dairy farmers in Dodge County on how to use these alternative forages as a primary feed source.

Atkins described the various alternative forage options including cereal grain forages like oats, rye or triticale planted in spring or late summer and fall planting of winter rye, triticale or wheat. He also shared information on other options such as cool season annuals like Italian ryegrass and warm season annuals like corn, sorghum, sudan grass or a mix of sorghum and sudan grass.

He cautions that dairy producers must be aware of the quality of the alternative forages being used in their dairy rations.

“Send samples to a lab for testing,” he said. “Quality can vary depending on weather, cutting maturity and variety.”

He also cautions, “Watch the potassium content of some of these forages as this can really mess up fresh or dry cows so be sure to test the feed first.”

Forage should be fed to groups of animals based on quality.

Matt Atkins

“Low fiber/highest digestibility forages should be fed to the highest producing cows, forages with moderate fiber and digestibility are best fed to lower producing cows or young heifers and forages high in fiber with low digestibility are best fed to dry cows and pregnant heifers,” he stressed.

Cereal grain forages are an excellent source of digestible fiber at the boot stage and can make up to one-third of the forage dry matter in the diet of a lactating cow. They can partially or completely replace the haylage source and maintain production but replacement of corn silage will likely lower production and be less economical.

For pre-bred heifers use high quality boot stage up to half of the diet. For bred and pregnant heifers use lower quality forage heading to the dough stage. This can be up to 100 percent of the diet depending on fiber and protein.

Many producers, in recent years, have established rye or triticale in fall for a late spring harvest. Others have planted oats in spring for harvest in early summer.

He notes, “Rye will get away from you if you are unable to harvest it in time in the spring. Triticale is a little slower to mature.”

“Planting peas and oats after wheat harvest is an ideal way to get extra forage off your land,” Atkins said.

Atkins has done some research on sorghum and sorghum combinations for use as heifer feed. He says harvesting can be an issue, though.

He suggests using BMR sorghum when producing for lactating cows.

Forage sorghum can be managed as a single harvest or multi harvest. 

“You can get a lot of useable fiber from this feed, especially in a multi-harvest system,” he notes.

Special considerations

Both nitrates and prussic acid can be a problem. Nitrates concentrate in the lower 6-8 inches after a frost so it should be cut high or left in the field to dry until it is completely brown. Prussic acid concentrates in the leaves and new growth of frosted sorghum.

He suggests sampling any stored feed for nitrates before feeding.

“The feed should ferment several weeks before feeding and then should be tested just to be sure.  The test is about ten dollars and its cheap insurance,” he says.

Feed Hygiene

Amanda Young, Extension Dodge County Dairy and Livestock Educator, reminded dairy producers of the importance of hygiene for both water and feed provided for livestock.

She pointed to research indicating significant decreases in water consumption when water is not pure and clean. She suggests monitoring them and cleaning them on a regular basis.

As for feed, she says contaminants can get in the feed from any sources. Mud and dirt can easily get into feed during harvest or loading from a bag into a mixer. Yeast contamination, mold and fungi are some common issues in feed.

Amanda Young

“Feed can have food bacteria that preserves forages and improves digestion and the immune system but you want to get rid of any bad bacteria such as listeria or clostridia and fecal contamination,” she said.

Another source of feed contamination can be birds. Birds eating from the feed bunk can present several problems.

First, a single starling will eat up to 50 percent of its body weight each day and they love grain. When there are numerous birds in a barn this can amount to considerable feed loss and altering the ration the cows are getting because the grain is missing.

Just as important, however, is the fact that these birds are contaminating the feed as they sit on it and eat.

Finally, Young points to the importance of regular cleaning of the TMR mixer.

She said feed can build up in corners and sides of the mixer and mold as it sits there.  Eventually it breaks off and mixes with the feed.