High-quality forage with careful use of grain ration makes a difference on annual profits on dairy farms. In different ways, three specialists hit that theme at the University of Missouri Dairy Field Day, June 20.

MU dairy economist Joe Horner showed the dollar reasons for cutting costs. Cost of feed remains the biggest expense in making milk.

While farmers can’t control the price they get for their milk, they can control how much they spend on inputs.

Tony Rickard, MU Extension dairy nutritionist, urged balancing a ration based on feed value, not feed costs.

“We’re not talking least-cost rations, but high feed-value rations,” he told a crowd of 85 at the first-of-a-kind event at Southwest Center, an MU research farm in Lawrence County.

Rickard told of a farmer who balanced his ration, using byproducts instead of grains. Tea leaves balanced the ration at a nutrient level. But the cows stopped giving milk.

The lesson: It’s not easy making a grain ration that makes milk without using corn and soybean meal. Energy and protein are needed.

But Rickard added that an alfalfa ration provides nutrients that don’t need much grain supplement.

Horner had shown dairy farm records on how high grain prices put the squeeze on dairy profits in recent years. His numbers showed that the way to cut costs comes down to feeding more high-quality forage.

After the talks, Rob Kallenbach, MU Extension forage specialist, showed how to make forage as baleage. He had a row of plastic-wrapped big bales beside the meeting tent. High-moisture bales that had been wrapped tightly in plastic a month ago were cut open.

This wasn’t a flip-chart lesson. Dairy farmers sniffed—and some tasted—the difference in feed quality.

The hay silage combines moisture in grass with sugars in the leaves to form lactic acid. That juice pickles the forage, preserving quality.

“Cows love it,” Kallenbach assured field day visitors. Both grass and alfalfa maintain quality when wrapped in airtight plastic that protects forage from rain—and oxygen.

Producers were ready to listen. This spring provided few dry, sunny days to make hay. Few farmers succeeded in getting their first-cutting hay baled rain-free.

Kallenbach not only showed the finished baleage—both good and bad—but also held a baleage-making demonstration after lunch.

A machine from Legacy Farm & Lawn baled and wrapped hay that the MU farm crew cut that morning.

Baleage can be made in one day, as it can be stored with up to 60 percent moisture. In contrast, hay must dry to 16 percent, which takes days.

Hay cut and rained on loses sugar content, Kallenbach said. That doesn’t make good hay, or good baleage. The sugars ensure the ensiling process works. Also, sugars add feed value.

The surprise came in a report from Scott Poock, MU Extension veterinarian. He said more calves could be produced, earlier in the season, with fixed-time artificial insemination.

The timed AI, used in beef herds, works even better in the MU dairy herd. In the first trial at Mount Vernon, 72 percent of heifers calved after being bred on day one of the breeding season.

Poock said timed AI allows most calves to arrive around Feb. 1 instead of April 1. In turn, cows reach peak milk production at the time of peak growth in the grazing paddocks.

That tied back to lessons from the economist and nutritionist.  Early-season milk fills the milk bulk tank earlier. That can boost income.

Stacey Hamilton, MU Extension specialist whose office is at the farm, led a walk to grazing paddocks. Red River crabgrass planted this spring is almost ready for grazing by the milking herd.

This warm-season grass gives consistent summer grazing, he said. After it is done, the paddock will be killed and a new novel-endophyte fescue will be planted.

Two toxin-free fescues will be compared next grazing season. They boost milk production over the old Kentucky 31 fescue variety.

Those high-quality fescues will be shown at future field days.

The research farm, on Highway H, southwest of Mount Vernon, is a part of the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Columbia.

In response to a budget sequester, there will not be the traditional big field day held annually at the farm in September. Small, low-cost field days will be held.

Duane Dailey