Farmers urged to establish more perennial forage acres

Ray Mueller

Kaukana — The newly launched Alliance for the Great Lakes project is aiming to have farmers in Brown and Outagamie counties establish 2,000 acres that have a significant portion of perennial forages, or European cool season grasses, during the next three years.

Focused on the Apple, Ashwaubenon and Upper East watersheds that drain into the Lower Fox River and then the bay of Green Bay, the project is focused on reducing the algae growth in those water by limiting the runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen from agricultural land. Funding by the Great Lakes Commission is available to provide technical services and cost-sharing to farmers in those watersheds if they plant perennial forages.

Working with project coordinator Molly Meyers as partners on the venture are the land and water conservation departments in Brown and Outagamie counties, NEW Water, Tilth Agronomy, the Oneida Nation, Forage Innovations and the University of Wisconsin Extension Service. Meyers said the project hopes to identify and enroll fields with a high likelihood of water and nutrient runoff.

As indicated in a field on the Verhasselt Farms in Outagamie County, tall fescue is a season-long and multi-year supplement to alfalfa forage stands.

Field day kickoff

During a field day at Verhasselt Farms to promote the project, Meyers pointed out that from 1992 to 2014, Brown County lost 40 percent of its hay acres, most of which were alfalfa stands. Hay acres dropped from 82,000 in 1992 to 50,000 in 2012 and 2013 before bumping up to 55,000 in 2014. Acres for corn silage jumped from around 20,000 in the mid-1990s to an average of 40,000 in recent years.

Molly Meyers

Verhasselt Farms was chosen for the field day because of its inclusion of tall fescue in the alfalfa fields that are harvested for haylage to feed the dairy herd. The field day was held at the edge of a 2015 seeding of alfalfa with fescue from which four cuttings were taken in 2016 and from which a full growth of a possible fifth cutting will not be taken because it is not needed after the bountiful forage yields on the farm this summer.

Since feeding the haylage which has a percentage of the tall fescue grass, the Verhasselts have noticed great improvements in dairy cow health and a reduction in the need for veterinary services. The family partners, who include brothers Bruce, Ken and Mike along with nephews Derek and Chad, pointed out that they recently won a national award for dairy cow reproduction efficiency – an award that they attributed to the change in the makeup of their forage.

Daniel Olson

Forage strategy

The Verhasselts have been including some tall fescue in their alfalfa stands since about 2010. They plan on five-year longevity for those fields — one or two years more than the common practice — because of the persistence of the tall fescue.

In reviewing the analysis of a sample of the forage clipped on Oct. 18 from the field that won't be harvested, Daniel Olson of Forage Innovations was impressed by the neutral detergent fiber digestibility of 58 percent after 30 hours in a dairy cow's stomach compared to the 42 percent average for all forage samples tested at Dairyland Labs in De Pere.

With the inclusion of the tall fescue, the Verhasselts have approximately 40 percent alfalfa, 40 percent corn silage and 20 percent grass in the forage portion of their totally mixed dairy herd ration, Olson said.

Cool season grass history

Grass species which produced most of their year's harvest in the first cutting dominated in the United States for 100 years or more, but their combination of poor yield and quality for feeding dairy cows gradually gave way to alfalfa in the dairy sector, Olson pointed out. He noted that the last release of a new grass specie in the country occurred in 1931 when the University of Kentucky introduced a fescue that is still prevalent in the southern parts of the country.

Research continued in Europe, however, resulting in the development of a number of cool season grass species that are suitable for growing in the Upper Midwest. In a dairy ration, they have very good rates of fiber digestion and are good sources of energy, he said.

During the past 20 to 25 years, those European developed and sourced cool season grasses have been promoted in the United States by a number of commercial firms, including the Indiana-based Byron Seeds, for which Olson's Forage Innovations enterprise is the second leading dealer in the country.

Forage fine points

Olson acknowledged that he's not sure on what the appropriate ratio of alfalfa and tall fescue seed is, but he suggested per-acre totals of 20 pounds of alfalfa and 3 or 4 pounds of tall fescue as a starting point.

On multiple small research plots — “grids and blocks” he called them — on his family's farm near Lena in Oconto County, Olson is also evaluating the traits of meadow fescue as another good companion for alfalfa. In comparing the two fescue species, Olson noted that the tall fescue is more aggressive than the meadow species.

While trying to determine the proper ratio for alfalfa and fescue for seeding, Olson has observed that the answer might lie instead in great differences between alfalfa varieties. Those differences are the pace of regrowth of the alfalfa varieties, which gradually affects the stand density of the accompanying fescue or other grass species.

Having a portion of grass in the forage not only quickens the drying for the harvest of haylage or dry hay but also allows ensiling at a higher moisture content than for pure alfalfa, Olson observed. As a result, there have been occasions on which the Verhasselts were able to cut in the morning and then chop the forage for haylage by late in the day.

The grasses also contribute to good fermentation of the haylage and reduce the likelihood of the development of the harmful butryic acid. He pointed out that haylage with a significant portion of grasses is ideal for bunker silos and warned that any pure grass forage should never be stored in an upright silo.

Project factors

In the context of the new project, Olson pointed out that the fibrous roots of the grass plants hold more of the water soluble phosphorus, reducing its runoff volume. After each cutting, a portion of a grass plant's roots die, thereby contributing to the buildup of organic matter in the soil.

Over time, grass species will also improve the soil tilth and could serve as a buffer to the tearing of alfalfa plant roots when the soil lifts during a late freeze of already thawed soil, Olson added. Another benefit is how a grass will survive in low spots where water stands at times and kills the alfalfa.

By their third or fourth year, mixed alfalfa and grass stands could also be a good candidate for liquid manure applications immediately after harvest during the typically dry periods in July and August, Olson suggested. During periods with excess moisture, the bit of sod base that the grasses provide in a field can also serve as a cushion against vehicle tracks.

The growing and harvesting of an alfalfa and grass mix combines natural resource conservation practices with what is proving to be practical and economical for farmers because of the high quality forage that they can harvest, Olson believes. He suggests that it goes a long way toward resolving the conflict that farmers sometimes believe exists in matching good conservation practices with the crop productivity that they're pursuing.

Political perspective

What's envisioned by the Lower Fox River perennial forage project earned the endorsement of 8th district Cong. Reid Ribble (R-Sherwood), who is retiring after his current term. Addressing a gathering of about 20 people at the field day, he described the adjacent field as “a buffer zone” for keeping runoff contaminants from reaching surface waters.

Ribble pointed out that the project, which Olson also referred to as the “Save the Bay Initiative,” is targeted at protecting the Great Lakes, which constitute the largest body of fresh water in the world. That is necessary, he said, because of the existence of hypoxic zones (areas devoid of the oxygen needed to sustain marine life) in both the nearby Bay of Green Bay and in Lake Erie.

That the project is a volunteer effort by farmers and processors rather than a government mandate drew Ribble's praise. He predicted that participating farmers would reap benefits in the form of feed quality and profits.

“This will make a difference,” Ribble promised. It would enable more expansion in Wisconsin's dairy industry and benefit future generations. “The rest of the country is watching,” he said.

The field day was also attended by Wisconsin state senator Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay). He did not address the entire group but talked individually to many of the attendees. Ribble departed shortly after making his remarks and was not there for the bulk of Olson's presentation.

More information about the perennial forage project is available by contacting Molly Meyers by email to or by calling 920-680-6484.