If you spend all of your time “chasing the ration,” you’ll never get the results you want. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you really want high milk production from healthy cows on a consistent basis, you need to “lead the nutrition program,” says Lynn Davis, of Nutrition Professionals in Neenah, Wis.  And in order to do that, you need to know what nutrients each feed source — especially forages — brings to the ration.  That’s where forage benchmarking comes in.

When you start benchmarking your forages, and dealing with known elements, then you can develop a consistent ration that promotes cow health and good milk production.

Forage benchmarking defined

Simply put, forage benchmarking is comparing a current crop to a previous crop, or with alfalfa, one cutting to another, says Bill Mahanna, general manager of nutritional sciences at Pioneer Hi-Bred International. It allows you to focus on the quantity and availability of nutrients, degree of kernel processing, physical effectiveness of fiber, and silage fermentation measurements.

In order to benchmark your forages, Mahanna recommends running the following tests:

  • 48-hour NDF digestibility.
  • Particle size/length.
  • Protein fractions (including ammonia nitrogen to assess fermentation efficiency).
  • Starch content (corn silage only).
  • Degree of kernel damage (corn silage only).

Benchmarking forages is all about keeping the ration consistent to prevent problems when transitioning cows to a new forage. To do that, you must know how the forage will perform in the ration, says Mahanna. These tests help you do that.

Benchmarking allows you to see what each forage delivers. It tells you precisely what nutrients are available, how digestible they are, and helps you identify what other feed sources may need to be included in the ration to deliver the best mix of nutrients to the cows, explains Davis.

For example, if benchmarking reveals your corn silage is lower in fiber digestibility this year, you can change the ration to prevent problems. With this information in hand, you can add a high-fiber byproduct, such as soy hulls or wet brewer’s grain, to keep the level of fiber and digestibility of the ration consistent and your cows performing well.

In addition to improving ration consistency, benchmarking your forages can help you improve forage production. When you analyze what nutrients are available, and how digestible they are, it gives you insight into which forages will work  best for your cows. And you can use that information to make crop-selection and harvest decisions for next year.

For example, if you’ve always planted six or seven different varieties of corn for silage in hopes of getting a good silage product in the bunker, you might want to reconsider that strategy. Instead, select a family of hybrids designed for corn silage that offer similar and predictable NDF digestibilities, says Bob Prange, large herd dairy consultant with Land O’Lakes/Purina Mills. Then, within those corn silage hybrids, you can choose to plant two or three hybrids with different lengths of maturation to help increase your harvest window. 

Knowledge is power

Forage benchmarking — especially NDF digestibility — gives you and your nutritionist the knowledge needed to feed the cows with confidence.

“Before using NDF digestibility, I could make a ration change and keep all of the key parameters the same, but milk production could increase or decrease about 30 percent of the time,” says Prange. By adding NDF digestibility into the mix, he now gets a better handle on the forages, and that allows him to take out more of that variation. “It allows you to make ration changes, when needed, with confidence,” he says.

While forage benchmarking isn’t rocket science, it does help improve the consistency of your rations, of your forage production, and of your cows’ performance. After all, cows crave consistency. You should, too.