Quality forages can bump up milk averages in dairy herds

Many dairy operations in the Ozarks are either pasture based or moving towards pasture based as a means of lowering production costs, reducing inputs and bettering the environment.

With forages being a herd’s primary feedstuff, part of the management plan should include how to continually improve pastures for better production.

“High quality, home grown, forages give successful dairy producers the competitive edge,” University of Missouri Extension Regional Dairy Specialist said.

“Quality forage begins with digestibility — specifically fiber. Intake + intake + intake is the equation for milk production,” Bluel explained. “A cow is only able to consume 1.1 percent of her body weight in forage neutral detergent fiber (NDF). NDF increases as the plant becomes more mature, directly relating to a decrease in intake.”

NDF reflects the bulkiness of a forage. Because forage fiber is bulky, there is a limit to the amount of NDF that will fit into a cow’s rumen (first stomach), according to the University of Missouri Extension. When that limit is reached, a cow will stop eating because there’s no more room until a significant portion of the fiber in the rumen is digested and/or passes on to the lower gut.

Timing grazing programs according to the forage’s growth cycle will offer much greater results for milk production goals than if you ignore this aspect.

“Focusing in on harvest and grazing timing will ensure highly digestible fibers, and maximum forage yields. This will prevent intake limitations due to fiber,” said Bluel.

Keeping pastures as thick and lush as possible helps cows make the most out of each bite of forage they take. Bite size is primarily influenced by sward factors, such as grass height and density of pasture and the proportion of green leaf in the sward. If intake per bite declines, as it inevitably does on short swards, the behavioral constraints on biting rate and grazing time mean a reduction in daily forage intake. The amount of time spent grazing increases as the amount of pasture decreases, which is why high producing cows need to be provided a dense sward with at least 6 to 8 inches pasture height depending on the type of grass. To optimize milk production and profitability, cows must be provided with pastures that allow them to consume a high intake. If the pasture is too short, cows will not have as much intake per bite, and they will spend energy and grazing time. If animals are forced to graze pasture below 2 to 3 inches, to a short stubble or residual height, this will likely reduce the pasture regrowth. Implementing rotational grazing practices, or management intensive grazing practices can help you ensure an adequate supply of quality forage cows can graze with minimal effort.

Keeping soil nutrient levels high is imperative to improving forages and producing thick pasture swards. Phosphorus is a key nutrient when it comes to pasture-based dairies.

“Phosphorus is a macronutrient and essential for plant growth,” Associate Professor of Animal Science with the University of Arkansas Dirk Philipp said. He explained there are ways to contain phosphorus on site as much as possible, and a more even manure distribution is one possibility. Monitoring soil fertility through regular soil sampling is very effective as well and allows the producers to apply any needed fertilizer.

Improving forage quality does not only help to increase your milk production, it has additional benefits as well.

“A diet with forage that meets the requirements of the herd will typically see a bump in butterfat,” said Bluel. “Adequate fibers in the diet ensuring a healthy rumen will result in improved fermentation/digestion. In addition to an increase in overall yield due to intake, we often see an increase in total butterfat produced.”


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