One of the best ways to reduce grain costs is to increase the amount of home grown forage in the ration.  To do this, cows need to increase their DMI (dry matter intake) of forages. However, the quality must be high in order to make a high forage ration work.

Here are a few tips on how to improve forage quality to maximize DMI

  • Pay attention to the plants stage of maturity.   The leaf tip is the most digestible part of the plant.  As the plant goes from vegetative (all leaves) to mature (stems and seeds), the amount of protein and energy goes down and it becomes less digestible.
  • Test pastures and stored forages.  Pay attention to fiber levels, which will show which feeds are more digestible and therefore able to be used as part of a successful high forage ration.  Higher digestibility is needed to maximize forage dry matter intake.  On the forage tests, lower NDF value = higher intake potential.
  • Balance the types and amounts of protein and energy in the ration.  This will save money, improve cow health and productivity.  Here a few tips on how to monitor this:
  • Watch the manure.  If the manure is too loose it indicates too much protein or too much soluble protein.
  • Use MUN’s (Milk Urea Nitrogen test).  Most of the milk companies are now providing MUN levels along with the other milk tests.
  • Watch body condition scores

For Pastures

  • Make sure pastures are at least 6 to 8 inches tall before you turn the cows back into them.  If the pasture is short then cows will not be able to eat enough dry matter.  Pastures will need 3 to 4 weeks between each grazing to give them time to grow back.
  • Make sure the pastures aren’t too tall and over-mature when you turn the cows in.  If the pasture grasses have gone to seed and produced a lot of stems and seed heads, the digestibility will be lower, and it will be difficult for the cows to meet their nutritional needs from the pasture.
  • Make sure pastures are the correct size.  Ideally cows should get a fresh paddock after every milking.  The paddock should be big enough to provide enough dry matter to each cow, but not so large that they are wasting a lot of feed.  There is an article on the NOFA VT website on how to calculate paddock size.  We also discuss how to do this at our summer workshops.
  • Don’t over feed protein.  Cows which are fed too much protein during the grazing season (either as haylage or grain) won’t graze the pastures as well, will lose body condition, have loose manure, and may have trouble breeding back.  Replace the protein in the grain with energy (such as corn or barley) as soon as the cows go out to pasture in the spring, and be careful not to feed high protein haylage when cows are on high quality pasture.

For More information on High Forage Rations

  • Attend some of our NOFA summer workshops where we will be discussing ways to improve forage quality as well as many other topics.  NOFA VT is also collaborating with UVM Extension, the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the Vermont Grass Farmers association to organize workshops throughout the state on pastures, grain production and forages.
  • Contact Sarah or Willie at NOFA