It seems you can’t catch a break these days. The cost of major inputs – feed, fuel, fertilizer – continues to scoff at your profits.
When it comes to feed cost, there are some strategies, like feeding a high-forage diet, that can help you wipe that smirk off the face of high concentrate prices.
High-forage diets represent a prime opportunity – a silver lining, if you will – during tough economic times. Some herds have already found this silver lining and made it work.
Surveys of high-producing herds in Wisconsin over a six-year period found that forages made up 50 to 60 percent of ration dry matter. What’s more, these forages contributed substantial percentages of certain nutrients to the diet. And it was not just fiber, but also protein, starch and energy – what you would expect concentrates to provide.
Now is a prime time to be more aggressive with the forage portion of your lactating-cow rations. Here are some strategies to help you reach 50 to 60, even 70 percent forage dry matter, without hampering feed intake and milk yield.
Choose low-fiber forages
Forages vary significantly in their neutral detergent fiber (NDF) concentration (Please see the table at right.) Forages with a high NDF content are more filling, which can limit feed intake, says Mike Allen, dairy nutritionist with Michigan State University.
To offset this problem, select forages with a lower NDF concentration when you’re feeding a high-forage diet.
“So, for instance, if we balance for 21 percent forage NDF in the ration, using a forage with 35 percent NDF would give us a ration with 60 percent forage,” Allen says. “But if we used a forage with 45 percent NDF, only 10 units higher, then our ration drops to 47 percent forage.”
Keep in mind that the maximum amount of forage NDF that you can add to a ration will vary based on several factors.
“It varies with milk yield, but it also varies with the digestibility of forage NDF and with forage type,” Allen says,
“Although perennial grasses generally have greater fiber digestibility than legumes and corn silage, the fiber is more filling because it is more resistant to particle size breakdown and passage from the rumen.”
That, combined with higher fiber concentrations, limits the forage concentration of rations that include grass compared to rations containing legumes and corn silage.
You can feed a higher forage diet without losing milk production as long as the fiber in the forages is highly digestible, Allen says.