Extension scientists told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor supplemental grain can be crucial to a dairy cow’s production and reproduction, and successful operation of a strictly forage based herd can be very difficult.
Dr. Shane Gadberry, University of Arkansas Extension cattle nutrition expert, noted both the protein and energy needs of a dairy cow are greater than those of a beef cow.
“If we’re talking about trying to have a herd that’s managed without grain, then we’re assuming that all of our management inputs are going to go into pasture management, so we really have to focus on good, year round forage supply,” Gadberry said. “That, in some situations, can be a challenge. In the fall and the spring we’re fairly capable of producing some very high qualities of forages that are complementary to very good levels of milk production from our dairy cows. However, during the wintertime there’s often a two to three month lag where we’re going to be feeding conserved forages, even in that grazing situation, and most often the conserved forages are going to be of lesser quality than grazed forage.”
Feeding that forage without supplementation would lead to reduced dairy production, as well as a decrease in the cow’s body condition score. Gadberry said he gets calls from dairy producers who are worried about reduced milk output and want to have their feed concentrate tested, but haven’t examined their forages.
“Quality of forages, not only between farms but within a farm, can vary substantially from year to year,” he said. “Understanding the nutrient composition of forages and being able to manage those for maximum quality in both the grazed and the conserved situation becomes very important.”
In addition, during the late summer the nutritional quality of perennial, warm-season grasses will start to decline, and if drought is present the producer may also have to rely upon conserved forages. Even if those are of relatively high energy content, such as corn silage, they will be lower in protein. Gadberry recommends complementing them with a legume forage.
“It’s not to say it can’t be done,” he concluded. “There are always some grazing dairies that try to minimize, or stay completely away from grains. It’s possible, but in a situation where you’re trying to maximize yield and cost of production, I would say, would be very difficult to be 100 percent free of any grain feeding.”
Reagan Bluel, University of Missouri Extension dairy specialist in Barry County, Mo., said at best there are opportunities during the year when the forage is meeting the demands of lactation.
“If you’re an effective forage manager, you can have a window of the year where the forage is of such high quality that very minimal quantities of grain are required,” she told OFN. “But that’s so infrequent throughout the year that I don’t know that I want to make that sort of recommendation.”
One seeming exception would be seasonal dairies, which Bluel said are growing in popularity.
“They will calve every animal in February, and then they will dry every animal in December, so from December until they begin calving in February they will stop producing milk,” she said. Those dairies have timed their operations to be in peak lactation when the forage is of highest quality.
“Even those seasonal pasture-based dairies do feed a very small quantity of grain during the spring flush, and that tends to be when the forage quality is the highest. Milk production is less, but in that seasonal mentality you’re not expecting her to breed back until much later in lactation.”


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