Under most conditions, a cow will only eat for eight-to-nine hours a day and take 55-60 bites per minute. With these constraints on the amount of material that can be consumed per day, the quality of the feed being offered becomes fundamentally important to the amount of milk or meat a given animal can produce. When pasture, hay or balage is rough in texture, low in protein and digestible carbohydrates, and deficient in mineral content, a cow literally cannot eat enough to meet her daily needs. 

When looking at a stand of forage, there is more to consider than simply color and potential yield. Heavy tonnage and a dark green leaves do not necessarily mean that the crop is healthy and will make quality feed. High nitrate and potassium levels can push yield and color in alfalfa, but the resulting hay is often out of balance and will tend to be refused at the feed bunk. To get a complete picture of the quality of particular forage, other factors like sugars, mineral levels, protein and fat content must be considered.

Because mineral deficiencies are the root cause of many animal health problems, it is still necessary to use supplemental minerals to make up for what is currently missing in the feedstock in the ration, but the most cost effective, long-term strategy is to improve the mineral content of the forages that make up the majority of what the animals eat.

On many farms, the calcium (Ca) content as reported on feed tests, even in Ca loving crops like alfalfa and clover, can hover around .75%. Raising this level by only .25% can mean that there will be almost 1.5 times more available calcium in the diet. Because it has been absorbed and complexed by a plant, this calcium is already in a form that is highly bio-available and more efficient than even the best (and most expensive) supplements.

In a similar way, increasing the protein content of forages will reduce the need for increasingly expensive off-farm sources. Equally as important, if the forages are on a well-balanced nutritional program, they will have the sulfur and trace minerals necessary to make complete proteins.

Adding fats to beef and dairy rations has become popular over the last several years because they can increase energy content of the diet without increasing the dry matter intake (DMI) of the animal. Many farmers don’t realize they have the ability to raise the fat content of their forages to a point that would make many of the commonly fed supplements unnecessary.

When forage crops have high sugars, digestible carbohydrates, balanced proteins and increased fats, they become a nutrient dense and complete feed for all types of livestock. Ruminant animals were designed to eat predominantly grasses, legumes, and other herbs and shrubs. Adding starches and proteins to feed rations has become the standard practice in the industry only because of the inability of most forage to deliver the minerals, protein and energy necessary for high levels of milk and meat production.

For the plants, foliar applications of balanced nutrition packages can make rapid changes in plant nutrient availability and energy. Foliars work in two basic ways. First, they can provide small amounts of key nutrients that a plant cannot find in the soil. When timed appropriately, these micro-doses of minerals can give plants the missing pieces they need to perform key growth and reproductive functions. Foliars also can increase the metabolism and energy level of plants, so that they have an increased ability to pull minerals and other compounds from the soil, leading to an increase in their value as a feedstock.

This process of building quality forages is best considered as a part of building the health of the whole farm system over a period of several years. Yet it is possible for a single application to make a significant difference in the health and quality of a forage crop.

In most areas, there will be at least two or three cuttings of hay or trips through the pasture left this year. Ample time to begin to make the kind of changes in soil fertility and plant health that will mean better quality pastures this late summer and fall, and better hay in the barn next winter.

By Jason Hobson, Vice President of Special Projects, Advancing Eco Agriculture

Feeding a diet heavy on quality forages is one of the best ways to create a more productive and profitable livestock operation.

Quality nutritional programs can help build higher levels of complete proteins and carbohydrates in forages which lead to increased milk and meat production.

Alfalfa leaves taken from a trial in PA, where a single foliar application of phosphorus, calcium and trace minerals was able to dramatically change the leaf size of the treated plants. The leaves of an alfalfa plant are a much more digestible and higher quality food source than the rest of the plant and increasing the ratio of leaves to stems will quickly increase the protein content and feed quality.

References

Amaral-Phillips D.M. et al., 1997. Pasture for Dairy Cattle: Challenges and Opportunities. The University of Kentucky.
University of Vermont Extension, 2012. Growing Nutrient Dense Forages: Evaluation of Fertility Regimes at Butterworks Farm in Westfield, VT.