In the last decade, forages have seen a renaissance in importance for dairy rations. Nutritionists have gradually seen the light on the energy value in digestible fiber. The older “state of the art” ration of pure alfalfa haylage cut early-bud (its lowest fiber point) with shelled corn as the energy source (again, starch, not fiber) and the protein targets balanced with soybean meal (which used to be a by-product feed) produced more milk than baled hay, ground ear corn, oats and corn stalks, BUT kept veterinarians busy with displaced abomasums and high blood urea levels, depressed reproduction, laminitis, etc. Out of this “one size fits all” dairy ration grew the historically-blind concept that “grass is a weed” rather than the most basic and adaptable soil builder and ruminant feed that in earlier eras was the basis of pastoral dairying.
Adapting silos to storage of chopped alfalfa hay appeared to solve one of the big problems of hay harvesting—the visual loss of leaf dry matter at baling and after. Lightly wilted and windrowed alfalfa still looked like it retained its protein value in saved leaves. We assumed that chaff that blew over the top of the wagons was all chaff and stalk. We were usually fooling ourselves.
The mechanical storage innovation that proved you could feed hay in nearly the same quality as it was harvested, and suffer minimal loss of leaf volume, was the baleage (plastic wrapped bale) system, which proved that your return on the plastic used was 10 times its cost in saved feed. In areas of the dairy world such as the Canadian Maritimes, where herd sizes are typically 70 to 200 cows, this matches equipment investment to available labor and gets the feed quality job done.
The lagging part of the nutrient harvesting in the cattle industry today involves dry hay. Cows crave fiber, for rumen “scratch factor”, and crave the buffering of drier elements in an otherwise wet ration. So the search for affordable good dry hay is still ongoing. But those who are now adding better grasses to their alfalfa fields are finding their cows feel (and milk) better already.
What is the issue with dry hay?
The many steps involved in making dry alfalfa hay add up to a significant loss of nutrients we basically just return to the ground as surface mulch. How much do we lose? Here is some data that has been around awhile already:
Mowing 2% of leaves lost 1% of dry matter lost
Mower/conditioner 3% of leaves lost 2% of dry matter lost
Discbine 4% of leaves lost 3% of dry matter lost
Flail mower/conditioner 5% of leaves lost 4% of dry matter lost
at 70% moisture 2% of leaves lost 2% of dry matter lost
at 33% moisture 12% of leaves lost 7% of dry matter lost
At 70% moisture 2% of leaves lost 1% of dry matter lost
At 33% moisture 12% of leaves lost 6% of dry matter lost
Baling: (stacking flat wagons by hand)
At 20% moisture 6% of leaves lost 4% of dry matter lost
At 12% moisture 8% of leaves lost 6% of dry matter lost
(ejector bales thrown into basket wagons)
At 18% moisture 8% of leaves lost 5% of dry matter lost
(round balers, different designs)
range of equipt 10%-21% leaves lost 6%-13% dry matter lost
(Stack wagon picking up bales)
24% leaves lost 15% dry matter lost
Total losses: 12%-50% of leaves 7%-30% dry matter
Your equipment dealer will make a case for converting to wet wrap baling, so you can harvest all the alfalfa hay you grow. And there is an issue, as hay values have risen to the point where this means as much as $150 per acre in feed value you grew but could not get to your cows.
There is another factor. Is “pure alfalfa” the best dry hay “crop”, or could “mixed alfalfa grass and clover” be a better deal all the way around? In the first place, with grass and alfalfa side by side in the field, you have the more fibrous grass to attach those flimsy alfalfa leaves and prevent some from falling to the ground. In the second place, alfalfa’s energy values are inferior to the new, improved multi season red clovers that can add some fiber energy punch to your harvest.
SO—do you want to seed some better hay? Here’s a simple seeding mix to get you thinking.
Kingfisher 444 or one of our other improved root structure alfalfas 15-18 pounds/ acre
Emerald Red (4 season) or Freedom Red (3 season) clovers 2- 3 pounds/ acre
STF 43 or other endophyte free tall fescues (improved grasses) 10- 7 pounds/ acre
This will produce great baled hay, but would produce even better bunk silo haylage or wrapped baleage. Clover adds fiber energy and palatability, the grass adds fiber energy and tonnage at the level of protein modern dairy rations suggest. The alfalfa will grow in the summer heat so that you can justify the fuel and time of each cutting. The grasses we use no longer head out ahead of the alfalfa, so you harvest optimum feed from all three species.
The seeding rates may be higher than Grandpa used—but the blended cost of all this additional plant growth will be less than a straight alfalfa seeding at usual recommendations. More seed means more harvestable feed value, the alfalfa+clover+grass mix means sufficient fiber levels to keep your cows healthy (fewer displacements, less laminitis, less acidosis, better reproduction).
More importantly, returning grass to your seeding mix will add beneficial root mass to the soil, making it capable of holding more rain water and adding beneficial organic matter.
Think about it. Fall is a great time to plant a new seeding. We have the right seed to do it.
Of course, if you prefer, Spring is also a great time to plant a new seeding, perhaps with cover from an equally high digestible small grain like forage oats or spring triticale to harvest first.