Growing and Feeding High Quality Forages and Grains

This winter, NOFA and UVM Extension (Heather Darby) organized workshops on strategies to keep feed costs low.  Farmer who helped teach these workshops included Guy Choiniere, Earl Fournier, Earl Ransom, Luke Rainville, Brent Beidler, Joe Hescock, Dan Tilley and Jack Lazor.  They shared their experiences with growing forages, corn silage, small grain balage and grain.

Rick Kersbergen from Maine Extension presented research on organic dairy farms in VT and ME from 2005 showing 30-38% of operating expense was purchased feed, and that from 2007 to 2008, the price of 18% grain increased 45%.   This information set the tone for discussion for the rest of the workshop, making it clear that the best way to control feed costs is to look at the amount, type and quality of the forages, pasture and other feeds grown on the farm.   As an example, Kersbergen showed us that if you increase your forage quality from 14% protein to a 17% on 100 acres of land, you have a potential savings of $24,000 from lower grain cost.

Below are some key points presented by some of the speakers.

Notes from these workshops are available (contact Sarah Flack at NOFA

  • The cheapest way to make milk is good grazing management for as many months of the year as possible.
  • Grow cool season perennial grasses with legumes. These high protein perennial crops are less expensive to grow than the warm season annuals.
  • Improve forage quality by harvesting crops when plants are young and minimizing time between mowing and baling or ensiling.
  • Maximize dry matter intake (DMI) from forages:
    • Higher quality forage allows more DMI
    • Aim for at least 60 % of ration from forage.  Many of the farmer speakers were feeding 75% or higher forage rations.
    • The more DM intake the cow eats, the more milk she can make.  Karen Hoffman NY Natural Resources Conservation Service presented information showing that for every pound of additional DMI you can get 2 lbs more milk.
  • Don’t overfeed protein.  This common problem not only wastes money, but will cause health problems and lower milk production.  If you are feeding high quality grass/legume forages or pasture you need to switch to a high-energy low-protein grain. Test forages, watch the manure and use MUN (milk urea nitrogen) tests to see if your cows are utilizing protein well.

What about crops such as grain, small grain silage, warm season grasses such as millet or sorghum-Sudan for grazing or haylage? For farms who have the right soils and access to equipment these crops can be a way to assure a regular supply of farm-grown high-quality feeds.  For other farms it is clearly best to keep the focus on producing perennial forages and balancing the ration with purchased energy sources.