Alternative forages help Christop Farms boost milk production and bottom line

Dan Hansen
Neil Christianson, right, is joined by Sara Maass-Pate, Farm Business and Production Management instructor at Fox Valley Technical College, in Christianson’s freestall barn.

SHIOCTON, Wis. – After experiencing a lot of alfalfa winter kill, Neil Christianson, owner of Christop Farms, decided it was time to make a change in his dairy ration. That change involved moving to alternative forages and working with dairy consultant Amanda Williams.

The second-generation family farm was purchased by his father in 1955. “I began working full-time in 1977 after graduating from high school, and I bought the operation in 1991,” Christianson said. “We’ve more than doubled cow numbers over the years. We built a herringbone parlor in 1960 and the freestall barn in 2010.”

Christianson says he focuses on milking and managing the 200-cow dairy herd that is currently averaging 96 pounds of milk, 4.4 butterfat and 3.34 protein. “We’ve been milking 3 times a day now for five years.”

All planting, tillage, harvesting and bagging on his 500 crop acres are done by custom operators. “We chop 120 acres of corn for silage every year. We usually shell about 76-80 acres of corn a year, raise some soybeans, and a little bit of wheat.” About 50 acres of cropland are rented, and he also buys some dry grain.

For the last three years none of Christianson’s 500 crop acres has included alfalfa.

Christianson began planting alternative forages four years ago. “We started with sorghum, grass and clover mixes. That worked OK but the problem was getting the sorghum dry enough to go through the bagger,” he explained.

Dairy consultant

In the summer of 2021, Christianson began working with dairy consultant Amanda Williams who’s affiliated with the Barton Kiefer consulting firm. “Prior to that I worked for a local co-op doing more feed sales than nutrition work,” she said.

Evan Barton and Nathan Kiefer founded the company over 20 years ago in Ohio to focus on providing feeding solutions to dairy producers. 

“The company first expanded into the southeastern United States where they don’t grow alfalfa as well as we do, and now has grown to 20 consultants in 17 states,” said Williams. “They figured out how to feed cows with small grains and alternative forages to get 100 pounds of energy corrected milk despite summer’s heat stress.”

When Christianson switched his herd to the new ration, it was averaging 82 pounds of milk with a 3.9 butterfat and 2.9 protein. He also knew his cows had the capability to be shipping more than 5.58 pounds of solids.

“It’s always interesting when you make large changes in the diet during July heat. I think it was 90 and humid. Everybody else was dropping milk and intake that week,” said Williams.

Switching the ration

The switch has paid dividends for Christianson. “Along with the increase in milk, we increased components and the pregnancy rate has increased,” he said.

Feed efficiency – which measures the cows’ ability to convert dry matter feed into milk pounds – is up. Feed efficiency also can be expressed as the ratio of pounds of milk produced per pound of dry matter feed.

“Neil was at 1.48 feed efficiency prior to making the switch. Currently his herd is at 1.72, which has made a huge impact on the bottom line,” Williams noted. “Energy Corrected Milk determines the amount of milk produced adjusted to 3.5% butterfat and 3.2% protein.” 

It didn’t take long for Christianson and his dairy consultant to see significant improvement. “We knew we were onto something because four days after the switch the cows were up 11 pounds in the tank. In less than two months they were up over 100 pounds,” said Williams.

She says one of the things they focused on was balancing the overall diet for NDF digestibility. “That’s a piece of the puzzle missing a lot of the time when producers switch to grasses or other alternative forages.”

Recent samples of forage grasses were 65 to 70 NDFD, while holding 21-23% protein. “This is pretty valuable in the diet,” Williams stressed. "Neil also has been able to utilize cover cropping and double cropping, which has increased profitability.”

The mix Christianson plants includes fescue, orchard grass along with a couple of pounds of red clover to bump up the bypass protein. “Then we nurse-cropped that with triticale,” he said. “We hope to apply manure to the fields after cutting, and we’ll see how that goes next year.”

A sample from the 2022 second cutting of Christianson’s alternative forage mix, with water added to increase the feed’s efficiency.

A key part of the feeding program is adding water to the ration, according to Christianson. “This is a big factor in the efficiency of our feed components,” he said. 

Christianson built a heated shed and installed a high-capacity water pump that enables him to fill the mixer with the amount of water he needs in just a few minutes. “The water also flows through our plate cooler systems, so it’s used a couple of times,” he noted.

More information on these nutrition management practices is available by contacting Amanda Williams at, or by calling 608-778-5624.