cows in field

Bringing Health and Sustainable Production to your Farm with Nutrient Dense Forages


Forage & Grains

By Jack Lazor, organic dairy farmer, Butterworks Farm

Added September 10, 2012. Theory has it that our cows should be primarily consumers of excellent forages. However, grain is a necessary and expensive input that we feed to our animals as an energy source to “keep the flesh on their backs” during lactation. Feed grains and concentrates are getting increasingly pricey these days at the same time as 100% grass fed dairy products are gaining favor with organic consumers. As organic dairy farmers, we find ourselves stuck somewhere in the middle between needing to feed grain to maintain milk production and body condition while wanting to go the no grain route to save money, please consumers and increase the health of our herds. Things are certainly going to change this coming feeding season because of skyrocketing grain prices caused by the national drought situation. Most of us will be forced to cut back on the grain scoop just to make ends meet.

Have you ever had hay, pasture or baleage of such supreme quality that your cows turned their noses up at their grain? This usually happens when cows first go out on pasture in the early spring or when you have put up some candy-like awesome extra early first cutting. Unfortunately, these situations are few and far between on most of our dairy farms. We never have enough primo feed to take us through an entire winter feeding season. So what we can do to replicate that perfect forage that is of such high quality that grain feeding is no longer necessary? The answer is in the energy fraction of the feed, not the protein. If conditions are just right, we can put up forages with extra high levels of digestible energy for our cows. This is what puts the milk in the pail. Timely and extra early cutting of hay fields is the most common strategy for achieving high energy forages, but it is not always a guarantee. How many times have you gone out and cut lush young growth in mid-May only to get a feed test back below sixty NEL in energy? I have found that growing energy rich forages is more about soil fertility than it is about harvest dates. All plants produce fats in the form of lipids. The average level of lipids in most forage plants is just over one per cent, but given perfect fertility and conditions, fat levels of six per cent are possible. This is the feed we need to strive for if we want to eliminate grain feeding.

Soil, plant, animal and human health have always been a primary focus at Butterworks Farm. We started remineralizing our soils and building soil biology over thirty years ago. We have always followed the Albrecht method of soil balancing in which calcium, magnesium and potassium levels are balanced. Phosphorous reserves coupled with annual micro-doses of boron, manganese, copper and zinc have been part of my fertility program for my best hay fields and pastures that are near the barn. I would say that we have grown excellent forages with a very high proportion of legumes, but we are still reliant on grain feeding. If we took away the nine pounds of grain that we feed daily to each animal, our production would drop and our cows would get skinny. I am still searching for a better way to improve my stewardship. Recently, I have become aware of John Kempf’s Advancing Eco Agriculture system of soil improvement. The basic premise of this strategy for soil improvement and the resulting production of nutrient dense food is the maximization of plant photosynthesis and plant/soil digestion through thriving soil biology. This is accomplished by providing crop plants and soil with proper amounts of macro and micro nutrients through mineral and rock dust fertilizers and the foliar feeding of plant leaves with micronized trace minerals.


Harvesting third cut at Butterworks Farm

Everything works together in this system. Healthy plants work at their greatest potential which is more than nine times the present level of performance. Healthy mineralized plants that are supplied with adequate minor minerals like cobalt, molybdenum and selenium will have the right enzyme co-factors to enhance the process of photosynthesis. Molasses and other sugars are provided to feed soil microbes. The end result is a plant with higher sugar and fat levels. This in turn provides lactating cows with the most excellent forages possible and eliminates the need for grain in dairy rations. Soil organic matter and humus are built up as well because plants shed their extra sugar reserves as carbon into the roots and the soil profile. Everything improves as a result. Harvested crops have better quality and nutritional density while soils actually get better in the process.

I have to say that this whole process is new territory for me. It is expensive and time consuming. We more than doubled the rate of copper, zinc and manganese sulfates that we spread on our fields mixed with sul-po-mag and boron. For the first time in my life, I’ve used a crop sprayer on my farm to apply these minute doses of humates and micro micro elements onto my forage fields. The jury is still out on my little project. Fortunately, I have had some financial support from the Lattiner Foundation with this exploration into alternate methods to increase soil health and provide top notch forages to our cows. I have been able to team up with Dr. Heather Darby from UVM Extension to actually test this approach on my forage fields. We will be presenting the results of extensive forage testing and my personal observations at the upcoming NODPA Field Days in Brattleboro on September 27th and 28th.

Jack Lazor, along with his wife Anne, has been milking Jersey cows and growing forage and grain crops since 1976. The Lazors are one of the oldest organic dairy farms in the country and have been processing their own milk into yogurt, cream, kefir and buttermilk on the farm since 1979. Jack has been interested in alternative approaches to building soil fertility since he first began farming. He has just finished writing a book ‘Amber Waves--Organic Grains of the Northeast’ for Chelsea Green Press, which will be available in the spring of 2013. Jack is also one of our featured speakers at the 2012 NODPA Field Days.