The 2014 Illinois Forage Expo was hosted by the Tony Snow family near Mulberry Grove, Ill. The operation is a forage-based, intensive grazing dairy, which includes a 70-by-260 hoop shed compost barn that uses cornstalks for bedding.
The 2014 Illinois Forage Expo was hosted by the Tony Snow family near Mulberry Grove, Ill. The operation is a forage-based, intensive grazing dairy, which includes a 70-by-260 hoop shed compost barn that uses cornstalks for bedding.
MULBERRY GROVE, Ill. — Grazing dairy cattle can be profitable, as long as the producer has the “right stuff” — including attitude.

That’s the message of David Jones, who discussed the pluses and minuses of a forage-based dairy at the Illinois Forage Expo here. Adapting a grazing-heavy system requires commitment.

“You need to have a passion to do this,” said Jones, a nutritionist with Agri-King. “If you don’t like being in the fields, hire someone who does, or you will never get the right forage for the cows.

“Forage quality is the basis for efficient and profitable milk. It’s cheaper to make than grain. Quality is determined by management, maturing being the No. 1 factor. I realize weather gets in the way, but if we can’t manage the right maturity, we will lose quality in our crops. That will hurt the ration I can put together.”

There is a delicate balancing act in milk production through a forage- and hay-based diet. Factors include digestibility, protein levels and mineral content.

“Pasture can be a trick to balance. But it’s a management game,” Jones said. “You have to be smart about it. “Forage quality cannot be too good. I hear this all the time. It is not too good. What happens is, you get really good forages and nothing to balance them with.”

The range of forage types present the producer with a number of possibilities. Grasses and alfalfa, for instance, behave differently in the way they ferment in the rumen, Jones said.

“Grass will stay in there longer; the fiber fraction will ferment to a greater extent,” he said. “Alfalfa ferments faster, which means it can flush out the rumen quicker. I like grass in dry calves maybe 50-50.

“With high-producing cows, the reason alfalfa is so good, it does ferment quickly and they’re eating more. Their increased consumption dictates how much feed is going to pass through quicker. There is less time to get that fermentation done.

“It has to be digestible or it’s nothing more than manure. I’m not in the business of making fertilizer. I want it in the animal for milk.”

A cow may be full, but that doesn’t translate to production. That depends on the quality of forage being eaten.

“If you have straw in a cow it’s going to fill up quick; it doesn’t break down as fast,” Jones said. “That cow will not eat the amount of energy she needs to eat because she has rumen fill. If you improve the digestion, it breaks down, the cow can now get more in her rumen, so your intakes go up, to a point.

“As that intake goes up, your digestible energy goes up, and that’s where you get your milk. As quality of forage goes up, digestion goes up. Now you can feed less.”

The key is transfer of energy. Grains have attributes not shared by grasses and legumes. But a producer may get more out of his pastures by proper management.

“As much as I love forage, the best forage in the world just won’t be as energy dense as grain,” Jones said. “Corn and soybean meal has a certain consistency to it that forages do not share. You need to analyze forages if you want to maintain a proper ration balance. You have to let the sun do its job. It’s an excellent source of sugar.”

Minerals are important to the diet of a dairy cow. Producers must analyze nutrient levels of their forages to determine how minerals are blended.

“I like a teeny bit of grain, but the point is, if you use the forage, income over feed cost can go up,” Jones said.

The diet of a Wisconsin cow holding a milk-production record is 69 percent forage, according to Jones.

“It can happen. You can break world records on forage,” he said. “Can you imagine the income on that cow? There’s a lot of money to be made with good forages.”