cows in field

Managing For High Quality Forages

Forage & Grains

Part 1

By Gary Zimmer

Added March 8, 2012. So you want farming to be easy, you want to have fun, and you want to make money. As an organic grazier with those goals, you have to manage for high quality forages.

But what do you need to be successful? Where do you start?

First, you need to examine your soils, and be sure that they are healthy and mineralized. Then you need to look at the plants you are growing and be sure that they fit your management goals. Finally, you need to address the principles of the cow: what does the cow need to produce quality milk and meat?

In this first of a series of three articles, let's take a brief look at the first requirement for high quality forages, which is healthy soils.

The Soil: Growing quality forages starts in the soil.

A healthy soil needs to have enough minerals to grow a good crop, but it also needs to have a good, loose crumbly structure and it needs to be full of biological life. The first step towards understanding where your soil fits on the health spectrum is to take a soil test.

A soil test gives you clues as to how many minerals are in your soil, and your soil's capacity to hold on to those minerals. When you take a soil test, you should look at a range of minerals, not just NPK and pH. There is plenty of evidence of the need for a sufficiency level of the 12 or so minerals I always test for on a complete soil test. A soil test is used to identify limiting nutrients and any excesses. Once you know a soil's strengths and weaknesses, you can start balancing the soil minerals by addressing calcium and phosphorous.

After you balance your soils based on any deficiencies found on the soil test, additional minimum nutrients need to be added to feed the crop. A good place to start is with soluble calcium from a good source along with sulfur and boron. Nitrogen would be helpful, but as organic farmers our options are limited. Pelleted chicken manure from laying hens is the preferred source that I use on my own farm. However, you can have too much of a good thing-- yearly over-use results in lots of extra calcium and phosphorous. There are also questions on the use of manure from conventional hens fed GMO crops, which can have some unwanted things in it. This is certainly a concern that shouldn't be ignored.

Ideally, you should take soil tests every 3 to 5 years to monitor the mineral balance in the soil, using this information to make the soil corrections as dollars allow. It's important to supplement this soil testing with annual plant tissue tests and feed tests in order to see how many of those nutrients in the soil are getting into the crop. If the plants are short of minerals, use balanced crop fertilizer designed to fit the situation, and add soluble calcium.

The soil has a certain ability to dish out minerals, hold water and produce crops. Your fertilizer, besides addressing the limitations of your land, adds nutrients above and beyond sufficiency levels for better yields and quality than your soil can provide on its own.

With the price of fuel and feed, I see no other choice—we can and have to do better! More production and better quality is certainly achievable.

Once you've looked at your soil minerals, now what about other soil issues like compaction, plant root growth, water and air movement in the soil, and nutrient mixing? Can you just dump everything on the surface, like cow manure and fertilizers, and hope it gets to plant roots, or do you need an aeration tool to make holes in the ground, allowing water and nutrients to enter the soil? A deeper sub-soiling tool, such as a Yeoman plow, may also have its place. Managing compaction is very important, and sub-soiling certainly needs to be looked at. Most soils do really benefit from this management approach.

Another management concern is the lack of rotation that is often a problem on pastures. If you do rotate your crops with your pastures every few years, you could avoid doing the aeration-mixing, but then there's the cost associated with having freshly-worked and loose soil which could be more prone to compaction.

Maybe making and feeding some stored feeds or seeding in the field and delaying pasturing cows on recently worked fields can offset these issues. Then there are the concerns with land that is in permanent pasture. Many farms have land with too many stones, or with steep slopes, making it hard to rotate. How do you maintain high quality feed on those pastures?
In hay fields, research shows that after three years in hay there's up to a 30% yield reduction. Can permanent pastures, which are never aerated or rotated, maintain yields? Is the best strategy on those pastures to mob graze in tall, over-mature, lower digestible forages--wasting much but adding to soil organic matter?

Rotations allow you to plant blends of improved varieties in ideal ratios-- starting over, so to speak, when pastures become dominated by just a few species. Working the land while rotating pasture plants also allows soil corrections to be made and allows nutrients that have accumulated on the surface to be mixed into deeper layers of the soil. I know this production system works and yields high quality forage along with tonnage; that's how we do it at Otter Creek Organic Farm.

The question is: can you save money doing it another way and still get good results? You can't skimp on high quality, high yielding forages if you are not supplying grain as a supplement. Is the supplement just adding what's missing? With healthy soils and balanced fertilizers it's possible to change the level and amount of minerals in the forage plants, and minerals in highly digestible forages become highly available to the animal.

How do you do all this without feeding grain? Again, it requires better management; it's more difficult than just "give them a little grain with all the goodies added to it". You need healthy soils with plenty of available minerals in order to get healthy, balanced forages.

It's important to always evaluate your system. Take soil tests so you know your soil's strengths and weakness, and you can address those weaknesses. You need to create an ideal place to grow nutritious, healthy plants. Mineralized healthy plants need to be managed so they won't violate the principles of the cow. That's challenging, but certainly profitable once it's working.

What it all boils down to is basically this: Get soils healthy and mineralized and you will have a solid base to produce the high quality forages you need. In my next article, I'll take a closer look at forage blends and how to manage them for optimal plant growth and optimal livestock nutrition.

Gary Zimmer is a farmer, agri-businessman, author, educator and President of Midwestern Bio Ag. Dedicated to improving farming through restoring and balancing soils, he has written two books and spoken to and worked with farmers across the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, and South Africa. The Zimmer family's organic farms utilize the ideas Gary has gleaned over a lifetime spent studying agriculture. Otter Creek Organic Farms includes an organic dairy, pastured beef and poultry, vegetables, and other crops on 1,000 acres.

Part 2

By Gary Zimmer

Added June 4, 2012. As I wrote in part one of this series (in the March NODPA Newsletter) on grazing dairy cows, the soil is where it starts but also where there are many limits on production. As soils change, so do plants. This second article, on the plants, will address how to plant pastures, which plants to grow, and how to manage them.

So what makes an ideal pasture?

  1. Thick, nutrient rich and diverse
  2. Very palatable, something the cows can overeat on
  3. Very digestible—this has to do with species, plant size and weather
  4. Has a very good balance between protein and energy
  5. Has a mineral balance, not only for cow health but for plant health
  6. Fits the climate in your area
  7. Tolerates the cattle you're grazing

How to plant

You need to start with soil preparation before deciding what seed to put in the ground. In my previous article on soils, I talked about applying a soil corrective on an established pasture. It's difficult to get nutrients into the soil, not just lying on top of the ground. So before leaving a field in long term pasture, get the soil corrections done first. I like my calcium applications worked into the top few inches so I have a good supply in the area where the seed starts. Choosing the right calcium source for your situation is a major factor in successfully growing good forage plants.

After I have the ideal soil conditions to put the seed in, I need to sow enough seed, and use methods of planting so that my final result is a thick, dense stand like a perfect lawn. Now, how you get that done may vary, but the purpose is threefold: weed control, the cow getting full bites (she is only going to take so many bites in a day), and high yields under proper management. I use a Brillion seeder with a legume and a grass seed box and bulk spread the seed. I also make sure the seed is at the proper planting depth and gets rolled firmly. Accomplishing this is essential to establishing quality pastures. There is no sense in buying expensive seed, then doing all the work, and not getting a perfect, lush stand. Make sure you can achieve this.

What to plant

Your next big decision is deciding what to plant. It's hard to pick out one plant that fills the need for an ideal pasture. Where the climate is ideal, the one that comes closest in my experience in the world is rye. A lot of milk can be produced on rye, especially when you apply enough nitrogen to establish a lush stand, and feed your cows a bale of hay for effective fiber and a grain mix with added minerals.

Now, if I could add a little clover to the rye, I wouldn't need to apply all that nitrogen to the soil, and the mineral balance for the cows would improve, too. Rye certainly has its problems in our area, like coping with cold winters and hot, dry summers, and the need for intensive management. On our farm, we annually no-till in more rye seed later in the growing season-- these are on milk pastures rotated and intensely managed.

Rye, and better yet rye with clover, is great for the milk cow. In our climate it is best in early season and again late season.

Other dependable standbys would be fescues and orchard grass. With newer genetics, these are improved on time of maturity, digestibility, palatability and reduced endophyte problems in the fescue. Here on our Wisconsin farm, the tall soft fescues seem to do the best, even in our alfalfa forage mixes. My observation of what works best in a pasture is two-thirds grasses and one-third legumes with other plants like chicory or plantain added in at a low percentage. Remember, the soil likes diversity and the cow likes it too. What you see in a pasture is what's being managed for: stage of growth at grazing, the rotation, the fertility of the soil and the fertilizers used all have an effect.

Another consideration when choosing pasture plants is the group of cattle you are feeding. Dry cows, heifers, and milk cows certainly aren't all fed the same. Livestock have principles to live by just as plants and people do. The word balance is always there. What you supplement your animals with when they are grazing is what's missing from the pasture. Energy, minerals and effective fiber are things that always seem to need to be dealt with (Part three, in the next issue, will deal with those needs.)

Managing pastures

Once the pasture is established, we need to manage it. What stage do we graze? This could be the topic for another whole book! Most realistic, depending again on species, is grazing plants at maybe a foot tall. Shorter is too extreme for the health of the soil and the cow, taller is too low in digestibility and palatability. Cows don't like eating mature, headed out pastures, even if they're high in Brix. Rye grasses certainly do better at the middle grazing height of about 8 inches.

For adding fertilizer to established pastures on organic farms, a good nitrogen source is chicken manure, but you do need to be careful. If the soil is already high in calcium and phosphorus, you may be getting an excess by adding chicken manure. If there is an excess of calcium and phosphorus when putting on the manure for nitrogen, the program can't be sustained long-term. Remember, the minerals in the soil are going to determine which plants are dominant on your pastures. Nitrogen favors grasses while calcium and phosphorus favors legumes. On our farm, calcium levels are high and legumes are dominant. That means I have to adjust my seeding rates when I'm planting pastures to make sure I can get enough grasses. Just a few pounds of legume seeds go a long way on our farm.

When managing pastures, my vote is to start by getting the basics right with the soil, choosing the right species for your situation, and establishing a good stand. It's then that you can test and experiment with adding other things. For example, you could try extending the grazing season by using summer annuals like sorghum sudan grass, small grains and even a grazing corn may fit the rotation. They do add better digestibility during the hot summer months, too.
As I write this it is April 3 and our cows have been grazing for a week (that's not normal for Wisconsin). This early grazing is on winter cereal rye. It has a two week advantage over our normal pastures. We can then let those get a little taller and become more ideal forage before we start grazing them because the rye was ready first. When we move to the regular pastures, the rye will be torn up and a summer annual planted. Following that, or on a pasture we want to rotate, we will plant a fall grazing crop by mid-August. Oats, forage peas, turnips, with a little added rye grass, and come mid-October, when the other pastures have really slowed down, we have beautiful forages to graze for at least another month.

In order to make this type of pasture management work on our farm, we need to cut and bale some fields, especially early in the season. Also, at least twice a year we clip pastures to get back to a uniform, better grazing sward.

As graziers we know that managing pastures isn't as easy as growing forages for harvest. It's easy to get quality hay by cutting forages at the right stage of plant growth. It's easy to plant alfalfa with a small amount of grass, and after a few years rotate with corn. Successful grazing and pasture management, on the other hand, is intensive, requiring lots of planning and thinking ahead. It can certainly be profitable, however, and like so many things the fun and challenge is the opportunity to use your skills to make it successful.

Gary Zimmer is a farmer, agri-businessman, author, educator and President of Midwestern Bio Ag. Dedicated to improving farming through restoring and balancing soils, he has written two books and spoken to and worked with farmers across the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, and South Africa. The Zimmer family's organic farms utilize the ideas Gary has gleaned over a lifetime spent studying agriculture. Otter Creek Organic Farms includes an organic dairy, pastured beef and poultry, vegetables, and other crops on 1,000 acres.

Part 3

By Gary Zimmer, President, Chairman of the Board, Midwestern Bio-Ag

Added August 3, 2012. In the last two articles we've looked at our soils to be sure that they are healthy and mineralized, and then we looked at the plants we are growing to be sure that they fit our management goals. Finally, in this third and final installment, we'll consider how to address the principles of the cow: what does the cow need from that pasture to produce quality milk and meat while staying healthy and in the herd? Balancing the soils and the plants with the needs of the cow is what grazing management is all about.

Along these lines, I just read an article about a dairy in Australia where the dairyman commented on farming for the bottom line, balancing (starting in the soil) and breeding for "invisible" cows (those that just do their thing, trouble free). This farm put their efforts on the dry cow: she needs to have a healthy calf, clean, stay healthy herself, and go right to work. The milking cow was fed 14 pounds of a grain mix and was giving 44 pounds of milk. That's easy; now take away the grain or really reduce it or price it out of use. What level is that? We (meaning the dairy 'community') know a lot about the cow's requirements, know about where the level of protein should be and what kind is needed for certain diets, energy levels and sources needed for production and health. The dairy 'community' also has a pretty good idea of the minerals, vitamins, quality feed, digestive aids, etc. needed for cow health.

So with all this knowledge, why doesn't everything go perfectly on every farm? Because we stretch the 'principles.' We take the grain away, get out of balance with minerals, don't get the proper balance, or feed moldy poor quality forages, and put the cow into a stress situation.
So how far can we go without getting into trouble, or failing to get production? In the world of 'get-lots-of-milk confinement dairying', they do the opposite of organic low-or-no grain dairy farmers. Everything is dialed to maximum, the turbo is turned up and the cow is not expected to last long and doesn't. Now with the price of grains she will be fed anything and everything except maybe ground up tires for energy. At what level are the principles of the cow being violated and with what stuff? What about the quality of the product she produces? We can keep her around a little while longer with all the drugs and hormones and supplements. (Many certainly do the same to soils: growing corn on corn can be done but at what price to the land, the environment, and the quality of feed/food being produced?) What are the main problems with this out-of-balance dairy system? Start with breeding, digestion, and just plain physical health.

Now let's go to the other extreme: no grain or extremely low levels of it, minerals out of balance, rich pastures too high in protein and digestibility: just look at the manure! Cows are short on energy, production suffers, health suffers, breeding problems show up, the immune system really struggles. You can't violate the principles of the cow!

There was an article I read recently about an organic dairy farm with a Johnes problem and all the effort they put into testing, culling, "keeping clean", and chasing bugs. I believe it's really an immune system issue as we have stretched and stressed the limits of the cow. How far can you go without doing harm? How hard can you push? It's like smoking—you can have two cigarettes a day and do just fine. So how about four? Or six? It's hard to know how far you can stretch the limits before you begin to see the negative consequences.

Every farm is a system, and there is no one perfect way to do things. To be safe, since you as an organic farmer can't go to the drug-supplements cabinet (it should be empty), a 65-75% forage diet of a variety of foods is a good range. Now watch the protein to energy ratios and the quality of the forage. Make sure dry matter intake is good. Supply the balanced minerals, vitamins and other supplements and it works!

We know it's not all that easy and the topics of my last two articles—the soil and the plant—affect 75% of the cow's diet. With every farm being different, I can't give you an exact formula, you have to find your own. But bench marks help you reach what's achievable.
The informed consumer wants to have products from healthy, drug and chemical free cows. They want that animal to be comfortable and grazing. So what is achievable?

How the system works at Otter Creek Organic Farm

On my own family farm, this is what we do to make our system work. Yes, we would always want more milk, we're farmers, but we do have lots of "invisible" cows. We calve out on pasture (dry cow lots in the winter), pick the calves up usually within the first 12-24 hours, and put the cow or heifer in the milking group pretty much trouble free. Transition is easy from low grain to just a little more. Conception rate is high, cell count is low. During the dry period we have revved up her immune system. Quality feed, watching excesses and deficiencies along with balanced minerals, great vitamin levels and a lot of extras like kelp and DFMs have her ready.

We have no need for wormers, antibiotics or any kind of hormones to get cows pregnant and keep them performing. We do vaccinate but don't need a drug. We are milking 250 cows and will raise 150 heifer calves this year. We are overloaded! (And aren't those things signs of cow health?) Mastitis is not a big deal, cell count runs between 100-150,000, butter fat and protein are good. Doesn't it sound like quality milk is being produced?

Management is by a team of people who work well together. The calves are taken care of to the maximum. We don't wean them until they're really doing well, even if that's not until they're three months old. They have fresh air, a comfortable and dry place to live, and are fed quality forages that are 'produced' and selected just for the heifers. It's not the junk or poor quality feed. A small amount of grain, supplements including the extras like kelp, direct fed microbials, yeast and a little CharCal, along with natural salt, round out the diet.

Quality pastures, rotated, fertilized and managed for the heifers provide a high quality, balanced diet. Our grain levels are usually 3-5 pounds per day. In the winter, with older heifers, the corn silage provides most of the grain. (Corn silage and bad hay is not a heifer diet!)

Then there are the dry cows, the number one, major, most important job on the farm—I can't overemphasize the importance of getting them right. Grow or provide the right feeds for them. What is that? We set aside acres just for dry cows and fertilize, harvest and select seed varieties just for this group. With the dry cow, you always need to watch the excesses. Too much protein, grain and minerals of certain kinds and you will pay the price with trouble down the road.

If you aren't sure what the guidelines are, know that the cow should be "invisible"-- unnoticed because she doesn't need your attention. She calves, she cleans, she breeds back and she produces quality milk without intervention. Visit farms that appear to have it right. Accept no or very little trouble as your standard.

I have always said, give me your dry cows and your forages (which start in the soil) and I will change your farm.

I wish I could give you a recipe for success, something you could dial in and everything would be great. But that's not farming, and just like soils, cows can't be fixed overnight -- it's best not to 'break' them in the first place.

I will leave you with questions, rather than answers, for looking at your own farm: are you a good enough manager? Do you have the right quality forages and know how to manage them? Are the soil minerals right and your animals healthy? Do you have the right genetics and management? Have you earned the right to pull the supplements away and feed little or no grain?

Gary Zimmer is a farmer, agri-businessman, author, educator and President of Midwestern Bio Ag. Dedicated to improving farming through restoring and balancing soils, he has written two books and spoken to and worked with farmers across the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, and South Africa. The Zimmer family's organic farms utilize the ideas Gary has gleaned over a lifetime spent studying agriculture. Otter Creek Organic Farms includes an organic dairy, pastured beef and poultry, vegetables, and other crops on 1,000 acres.