Forage Crops: More Than Just Corn Silage

12/21/2013 7:00 AM

Jessica Rose Spangler

Reporter

GRANTVILLE, Pa. — What are the typical “main” ingredients in a dairy cow ration? Corn silage and alfalfa haylage.

That combination might get mixed up on a few dairy farms if their nutritionist attended the annual Penn State Extension Dairy Cattle Nutrition Workshop Nov. 12-13 in Grantville, Pa.

During the conference, multiple sessions were held concerning mixing up the forage production on dairy farms to manage risk and increase profitability.

“Forages are key to profits,” said Tim Fritz, forage agronomist and president of King’s AgriSeeds Inc. “We need lots of tonnage and high quality. We want wide harvest windows and lots of different ones.

“We need to rotate crops, keep costs reasonable and do nutrient management. When we have all these things in synch they work not just for the guy with too many cows, but for the guy without enough,” he said.

According to Fritz, a healthy forage cropping system combines the use of perennial crops such as alfalfa/grass mixes or grass/clover mixes, with summer annuals such as corn silage, and winter annuals such as oats or ryegrasses.

When determining what crops each farm should grow, multiple factors need to be considered: What crops are best adapted for the climate and soil; planting and harvesting equipment; storage; harvest windows that fit the farm’s needs; and which groups of livestock need to be fed.

Fritz recommends making these decisions as part of a team effort with the farmer, nutritionist, forage agronomist and financial adviser.

Forage systems need to satisfy the needs of a ration. Dense energy, or starch, can be provided through corn silage, forage sorghum and soft-dough small grains. Protein can come from legumes such as alfalfa and clover. Fiber energy can be generated from vegetative grasses — perennials and annuals.

Fritz likes to see a crop from each forage category in the forage system.

“The goal here is to take crops and put them into each farm. There’s no cookie cutter” solution.

Fritz also provided some examples of what a forage system can look like.

In Southeastern Pennsylvania — where there are deep, well-drained soils — corn and alfalfa are the biggest crops. But if an alfalfa/grass mix is planted, forage quality can improve, especially if wide-swath cutting is used. For winter protection, Fritz recommends planting small grains like rye, wheat, barley or triticale. Planting some acreage of summer annual Sudangrass or forage sorghum can provide insurance against drought.

In Northwestern Pennsylvania, the soils are wetter with cooler temperatures and good rainfall. Corn silage can still be grown effectively, but grasses are a larger portion of the production plan — alfalfa/grass, clover/grass and Italian ryegrass. The later should be planted in April to provide a consistent crop every 21 to 28 days, according to Fritz.

Italian ryegrass averages “15 to 17 percent protein, good energy, and yields like corn,” Fritz said.

The third example Fritz provided was for Franklin County, Pa., the so-called “drought capital” with slate soils. Because of the lack of rain, forage sorghum starts to replace corn silage. Ryegrass can also be harvested twice before planting sorghum. Straight alfalfa should be utilized.

No matter where the farm is located, the farm team needs to take into consideration how crop production affects the ration, milk production, and ultimately the checkbook.

“We’re moving more toward high forage diets. ... It’s all about increasing productivity of the farm, starting with improving productivity of the fields,” Fritz said. “Increasing yield in high-forage diets decreases the number of acres per cow needed, resulting in more money in the bank.”

If a ration is formulated for 55 pounds of dry matter intake (DMI), a 60-percent forage ration would requite 7.5 tons of dry matter per cow, 6.5 tons of dry matter per acre, and 1.15 acres per cow.

If the same 55 DMI ration uses 40-percent forage, that requires 5.7 tons DM per cow, 5.7 tons DM per acre, and 0.88 acres per cow.

Brown midrib (BMR) forage sorghum should be considered on most farms as an alternative to corn silage, especially because it’s drought tolerant. “Plant it just like corn in 30-inch rows,” Fritz said. “Harvest at the soft-dough stage” when the color is right for the particular hybrid planted — green/brown to cream.

Forage sorghum should be harvested wetter than corn silage and must be stored in a horizontal structure. It also has a sugar content that is three to four times higher than corn silage, provides good fiber and doesn’t have as much starch, Fritz said.

The biggest caution against BMR forage sorghum is that it’s susceptible to wind storms when it’s close to harvest time. The solution, use Brachtyic Dwarf BMR Sorghum which only grows six to eight feet tall.

BMR Sudangrass is another drought tolerant forage that can be utilized. It should be harvested at 30-inches tall and dries down quickly in as little as one day, but can take up to four days. It shows high yield and strong regrowth, according to Fritz.

Another example Fritz provided was for a three-year crop rotation. In year one, corn silage was harvested followed by a winter annual.

In the second year, there are two choices. Option one is to take two cuts off of that winter annual followed by two cuts of BMR Sudangrass and then oats. Option two is to take one cut off of the winter annual followed by one cut of BMR forage sorghum and then a cover crop.

In year three, the oats are harvested followed by short-season corn. The pattern is then repeated.

“It’s an aggressive program, but it gives yields,” Fritz said. The key is that corn is not planted in the same field year after year. Organic matter is put back into the soil in the off year to help the corn yields soar.

In the end “we’re trying to bridge the gap between agronomy, nutrition and profitability,” Fritz concluded.


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12/19/2014 | Last Updated: 9:30 PM