Forage & Grains
Feeding Home Grown Forages:
Rotating for Quality
By Joshua Baker, Marketing Manager at Kings AgriSeeds
Added February 6, 2013. Growing your own forages has never been more important than now. After two years of tough growing conditions for the Midwest, the costs of inputs continue to rise. When you evaluate your farming systems from a holistic standpoint, you must be conscious of the inputs over which you can have the most control. In years past the traditional dairy farm model has been to grow forages and buy grains. As of late, the recommendation is increasingly to grow both your own forages and grains. This puts the ‘ball in your court’ and allows you to control more of your farms’ inputs. By producing your own inputs, you can decide whether or not these crops feed livestock or are sold on the market. You have control.
A crucial consideration when growing your own forage and grain is crop rotation. Crop rotation is more than just rotating crops in response to the market demand. Rather, it is the continuous rotation of crops for the benefit of the soil and farm management. Take a look at the crop rotation examples above right.
Both the ‘Classic Livestock Farm’ and the ‘Midwest Classic’ rotations above are the more traditional rotations. The ‘Midwest Classic’ allows for longer production of a single species (i.e. year after year corn) and ‘Classic Livestock’ focuses on producing forage or grain from individual species in a given growing season. While they can be effective, depending on your needs, a different sort of rotation is needed to produce the maximum tonnage of high quality forage. Take a look at the aggressive crop rotation below and to the right.
NOTE: The rotation above fits well into areas such as Southern PA. You must consider your growing season when planning out these rotations. The farther north you are, the more you will need to focus on crops with shorter maturities and/or eliminating certain crops from the rotation.
Additionally, the legume grass mixture used in this example would be one with a planned shorter life span (3 years). This portion of the rotation can be varied to fit other perennial mixtures with the typical 5-7 year longevity.
This example showcases a rotation that incorporates many species and relies heavily on balancing both perennial and annual production. Combining the benefits of winter and summer annuals within the same growing season, this sort of rotation allows for maximum production of high quality forage. The diversity of forage crops (annuals and perennials) and cover crops in this rotation provide large quantities of highly digestible forages while also considering the long term potential impact on soil health. The additional benefits of a rotation such as this include; increased soil organic matter, improved tilth, increase nutrient availability, reduction in pests and reduction in infectious diseases.
Quality Is Key
The key to feeding your own home grown forages is to focus on quality. What is forage quality? Evaluating your forage based on NDFd (Neutral Detergent Fiber digestibility) and NEL (Net Energy Lactation) is the best way to determine forage quality. For your cows to maintain milk production, you need high tonnage of high quality forage. Typically, protein is not the limiting factor in relation to producing your own feed. Your focus should be on producing as much highly digestible forage as possible, and if protein is needed, supplementation is manageable. Your nutritionist can only work with the forages that you produce. Given this, they must be of the highest possible quality in order to make your high forage ration possible.
Adding high quality grasses to your forage system is a great way to boost your production of high quality forages. Whether you are adding grass to your alfalfa, or following corn with a cool season annual grass, quality grasses improve your rotation and yield while producing a high fiber digestibility crop. Additionally, summer annual crops such as forage sorghum, sorghum sudan and sudangrass break up continuous corn acreage and produce high quality forage during the droughty summer months.
No matter how you choose to balance your farming system, both crop rotation and forage quality should be at the forefront. Balancing these two factors, along with others, is a great way to ensure that you control as much of the input costs as possible, while preserving your land resource for the future.