Forage Crops: Fresh Grass for High Producing Dairy Cows.
Feeding green grass to dairy cows is nothing new, but recent innovations have made it easier to add to diets of high-producing cows. A new practice that began on several large dairy farms in Wisconsin is proving efficient for harvesting high-quality perennial grasses to add to a TMR for improving cow health and performance, and manure/slurry can be utilized to fertilize the grass stand after each harvest.
Luke Wilson, Market Development Manager at Barenbrug seed company, says using improved varieties of grasses has made a big difference. These are not “your grandfather’s grasses” and the new varieties and mixes are better suited to high-producing dairies. They are more nutrient-dense, palatable, and keep cows healthier.
“Cattle were designed to eat grass and today we have higher-yielding grasses that can take manure application much better than other crops,” he says. Every dairy needs a place to go with manure, and grass is the ideal crop to utilize it and maximize growth. A grass stand can often last five to 10 years and keep producing high yields and is more cost-effective than crops requiring faster rotations or annual planting.
“Improvements in newer grasses include better digestibility and more nutrients as well as high yields,” he says. These grasses are very palatable and cows really like them; they want something green.
“One of the grasses in the mix we use is a soft-leaf tall fescue that Barenbrug developed. It is very durable and palatable, has better digestibility and is better utilized by the animal,” he explains.
Barenbrug has focused on improved grasses for more than 115 years. “In the crop world there are many improved options to choose from, and there’s been a lot of research on grass, as well. When selecting a grass or grass mix, make sure it is an improved variety that will keep a dairy cow producing at her peak,” he explains.
There are certain mixes that might fit better for certain dairies, as well. Northern regions have good results with the Nutrifiber products including the Milkway mix. Milkway is a blend of soft-leaf tall fescue and meadow fescue. “These do well with plenty of manure application and the two types of fescue provide longevity for the stand and convert those nutrients into great forage.”
Grasses are a small part in the whole feed system for these dairies but very beneficial. “Companies like Barenbrug, with research and development of new improved forage grasses have helped change the game, bringing grasses to another level that enable them to be used on high-producing dairy farms,” Wilson says. The most important thing is keeping the cows healthy and happy, and having some fresh high-quality grass in the feed mix seems to do just that.
Eric Staudinger, dairy nutritionist, works with Woldt Farms (Brillion, Wisconsin), a large dairy (milking 1425 cows and raising 1000 heifers). That farm had already been using grass in the ration for 10 years, harvesting it conventionally and putting it in bags or piles but started this new green feed program in May, 2020.
“We capitalized on equipment the farm already had, and the nutritional value of young grass. There is some cost of harvesting each day, but there isn’t any storage loss from harvesting and fermentation, or ensiling cost involved. The fiber digestibility of young grass is very high. We were able to increase the forage percent of the ration and decrease purchased feed—both in energy (corn) and protein sources,” says Staudinger.
“We increased forage in the diet about 8% at one point, and decreased purchased feed costs by a substantial amount, and the cows liked it. We looked at the diet in depth in terms of fiber digestibility per pound, and why it actually works,’ he says.
“It is probably as good or better than the fiber in corn silage, so it is really good feed. The amount fed is controlled; we started out very slowly with a lower feeding rate, and increased it a little every week or 10 days. We kept increasing it and decreasing our other nutrients until the cows told us it was optimal,” he explains.
“It was a great learning experience for all of us. We keep learning about nutrition for dairy cows and ways to optimize health and performance. At one point I was showing 70 cents per cow lower cost on diets,” says Staudinger.
“We’ve talked to many dairymen who feel they wouldn’t be able to cut the grass when it’s raining, but in our situation we only had two times that first summer (once in October when we got five inches of rain) that we couldn’t harvest the grass. We were able to fill that gap with other forages on the farm,” he says.
Grass makes a good crop on many dairy farms because it is hardier than other crops and doesn’t have to be replanted as often, in most cases. “There are also benefits in being able to get the manure back out onto the fields all through the season when plants can utilize more of it, rather than just applying manure in the fall, as we do for some of the other crops,” he explains.
The system works really well and it was eye-opening to see the savings in feed costs. The Woldt Farm had an advantage in already having the equipment needed for harvesting. For someone to start cold turkey and make the investment in harvesting equipment, it might be more difficult, but for anyone who already has the equipment it can save money immediately.
Jed Bateman of AgriSource (headquartered in Burley, Idaho, and a distributer for Barenbrug Seed) works with many farmers in Idaho and Utah and helps them determine what types of seed mixes might work best for their own situation.
There are some new seed mixes that are working well for dairies. “In the last few years I’ve seen more possibilities for dairies and the value of grass. I had never realized it had such a good fit on the dairy side. In the past I mostly worked with corn and alfalfa and cereal crops for dairies, then encountered a couple different grass mixes. As we tested their nutritional quality and realized what they can do for a dairy cow in the ration and cow health (due to the high fiber and protein content) we started working with several dairymen in our area. Use of these grass mixes for dairies has grown exponentially in the past five years,” says Bateman.
“One of the best has been Green Spirit Italian rye grass. This has given dairymen another option beyond the big three (corn, alfalfa and cereal grain crops). It has also given them the opportunity to put this grass in and leave it a couple of years and produce high quality forage both years. The fiber digestibility is as high as 70% percent.” Rye grass can have excellent nutritional quality.
“Here in the Magic Valley of Idaho we have problems with overwintering, but there are many places where it overwintered very well. We are working on this, trying to figure out ways to get two years out of it. The first year we can expect it to stay vegetative and not become overly mature. This grass is a biennial and doesn’t put on a seed head the first year. It grows continually and farmers are getting three to four cuttings the first year it’s planted. We plant in April or whenever you’d seed grasses or grain. We are usually taking our first cutting the end of May or early June. It establishes quickly,” he says.
“What I’ve enjoyed most is the many options it provides. It opens doors to new things. One large dairy fresh-cuts every day (several hundred tons per day) for the dairy cows and works across five pivots of it. That farmer told me that when he fresh-cuts alfalfa versus this grass, he gets another two days of feed in the Italian rye grass fields beyond what he gets with alfalfa. It provides more forage,” says Bateman.
That dairyman started with one pivot and has expanded it to five because it produces so well and the cows love it—and perform well on it. “Cattle were made for grass and if you can get the right kind of grass they do very well. That’s been the neat thing about all of this; our eyes have been opened to many options. We also have a product called Dairymaster that we use on several organic dairies that graze it. This is another one that’s had very good success. It has three different grasses plus clover. It makes a good perennial pasture, to get more years out of it than Green Spirit, and still produce very high quality forage,” he says.
For grass-based dairies there are now some great options, and good-quality forages that we didn’t know about in earlier years. “This provides new opportunities that can be a step up from what they’ve been doing.”
By Heather Smith Thomas.