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The quality of forages in a dairy herd's ration is crucial for optimal cow performance. Subpar forages like low-quality alfalfa or corn silage can result in reduced digestibility and inadequate energy for cows, ultimately hindering milk production.

Stuart Rymph, an agronomist and dairy nutritionist at Purina's animal nutrition research, emphasizes the importance of feeding more high-quality forages to cows. This not only provides them with more energy and protein but also maximizes the utilization of on-farm feeds.

Here are Rymph's tips to ensure you're not leaving money in the field and are getting the most out of your milking parlor.

Tip 1: Recognize the Value of Growing Alfalfa As dairy herds expand and land availability becomes limited, many farmers are opting to grow more corn for silage, sometimes replacing portions of their alfalfa acres. However, harsh winters can damage alfalfa crowns, posing a risk.

Rymph highlights the role of alfalfa in total mixed rations, which is to provide fibrous protein and balance the energy from corn silage. In the past, nutritionists aimed for a 50/50 ratio of alfalfa and corn silage to ensure good-quality alfalfa.

To prevent issues, Rymph suggests keeping approximately 40% alfalfa in the diet, as research shows it to be an economically favorable ratio. While corn silage can provide ample energy, relying too heavily on it may result in insufficient protein for optimal fiber digestibility. Ultimately, preserving alfalfa as a valuable crop is essential.

Tip 2: Focus on the Leaves The moisture content of alfalfa during handling plays a significant role in overall quality and yield. Wetting the plant slightly can make the leaves more resilient during harvest, thereby increasing quality.

Rymph advises farmers to wait for the dew to settle and avoid chopping when the alfalfa becomes too dry. Harvesting after the dew has settled allows for better moisture retention, preventing leaf loss. Even a minor loss of alfalfa leaves can lead to a substantial decrease in forage quality and yield, ultimately impacting profitability.

Tip 3: Optimize Cutting Height Research indicates that cutting forages, such as alfalfa, at a higher height allows for quicker regrowth and better-quality forage. Additionally, the cutting height of alfalfa in the field can indicate its neutral detergent fiber (NDF) value.

Farmers should aim to cut alfalfa stands at around 28 inches to achieve a desired NDF content. Cutting the plants earlier, when fiber values are lower, ensures the NDF remains in the desired range. As the plant grows taller and ages, the NDF value increases rapidly.

Tip 4: Time Harvest Window Opportunities Timing is crucial for maximizing forage quality. Wet and cold conditions can delay mowing schedules, but it's important to get into the field at the right time.

Rymph suggests stretching out harvest intervals from 28 to 33 days, as it can result in increased yield per cutting and per acre. Harvesting at a shorter height and earlier stage of maturity leads to higher-quality forage. Farmers should be attentive to weather conditions and adjust their harvest schedule accordingly.

Tip 5: Equipment Adjustment Matters Precision harvesting equipment offers several advantages but requires proper adjustments to avoid potential shortcomings. Farmers should ensure the header height and mower width are properly set to avoid harvesting rocks and dirt.

Adjusting mower cutter bars to a 2-3 inch cut height and using flatter profile knives for disk mowers reduces the need to clean dirt from the swath later. Additionally, setting higher heights for tedders, rakes, and mergers helps avoid ground scraping.