cows in field

What’s the Value of High Quality Forage?

Production Resources | Forage

Heather Darby, Agronomist, Dennis Kauppila, Economist, University of Vermont Extension

Added May 7, 2009. On my travels around farms this winter, I’ve noticed a wide variation in what farmers are feeding for grain. The quality and of course price have ranged anywhere from a 12% protein mix costing $535/ton, to high-protein mixes costing over $608/ton. This really affects the farm’s yearly income. For example, 50 milking cows eating 15 lbs grain per day, paying $100 per ton more for grain will cost an additional $8,000 over a typical winter. That’s not pocket change!

So what was the major difference between these farms? The farms feeding cheaper grain had put up higher-quality forage, even in a tough cropping summer. Their feed tested over 16% crude protein, with good energy and digestibility (45-50% NDF on the forage test). The cows made milk on good homegrown forage, instead of pricey organic grain. So, what does it take to make good quality forage, year after year? The basics to producing high quality feed include a combination of good management practices and of course good fortune. I am sure we all remember how difficult it was to make high quality forage last year! Forage can lose 10 to 20 % of its CP and digestibility if it is damaged by rain. However, since we can not control the weather we should focus on the things we do have control over. Listed below are some of the key management factors influencing forage yield and quality.

  1. Getting forage harvested on time is the first principle in producing good-quality forage. As plants mature, go to head, and then flower, the forage increases in fiber, reducing the CP and digestible dry matter content of the resulting hay. Hay digestibility decreases between 0.33 and 0.50 percentage points per day. The optimum harvest date will vary across the state so watch the growth stage of the grasses to determine when to start making first cut hay. Hay should be cut when grass is in the late-boot to early-head emergence stage. This stage provides the best compromise between yield and quality. This usually means late May here in Vermont for 1st cut. Later harvests should be made based on the growth stage of the legume. For highest quality, harvest when the legume is in the late-bud growth stage.
  2. Providing plants with the proper nutrition is critical to high yield and quality. Maintaining adequate soil fertility will start with soil testing. If some fields have high fertility and some are low, focus on the low ones first. Soil pH must be corrected to at least 6.5 for alfalfa, 6.2 for red clover. Potassium is the most important nutrient for stand maintenance and yield retention. Phosphorus is very important in stand establishment. Don’t forget to pay attention to neglected nutrients like calcium, sulfur, and boron. Manure, compost, and mineral applications can address immediate nutrient needs and build organic matter for longer term nutrient supply.
  3. Including legumes such as clover, alfalfa, or birdsfoot trefoil in your forage stands. Old grass hayfields, evenwith manure applied, can lose yield and quality as less favorable forage species take over. You know those fields – where you have to rake together several windrows to get enough for the baler, and the hay only tests 12% protein. Seeding legumes into these fields can improve yield and quality of your forages. In general a legume/grass stand having 25 – 50 % legume, will provide grass with up to 150 lb/acre of actual N. First, legumes “fix” nitrogen from the air and make it available to the grasses, often increasing grass yields. Legumes can also increase the feed value by improving protein, energy, and digestibility. Finally, a legume-grass mix lengthens the harvest window for hay, since legumes generally mature later than grasses.

So, what are the costs and benefits you might expect from improving hay fields? We looked at 3 different options for managing crop fields: low-input, frost seeding (see the February 2005 NODPA News for more information), and crop rotation. The values to produce the figures were adapted from published Northeast custom-hire rates, local seed and fertilizer costs, and our own best estimates. This figures only consider direct costs, and do not include fixed costs like land ownership or rent. We hope this is ‘food for thought’ as you think about the upcoming cropping season.

Option #1: Permanent Grass Hay – the ‘basic’ option
2 cuts per year, 1 cut wrapped silage, 1 cut dry hay. Yield is 2.5 tons/acre. No new seed, manure as fertilizer.

Option #2: Frost-seeding - the “low-input” option
Clover frost-seeded every other year. Yield is 3 tons/acre. Manure and lime as soil amendments.

Option #3: A 6-year crop rotation
2 years corn silage, 4 years hay with a field peas and oats nurse crop in the seeding year.


Interestingly, if organic protein costs $0.46/lb ($920 per ton for 46% soybean meal) then every 1% increase in forage protein content will be worth $20/T (2000 lbs x 1% x 1.0). Therefore in option #2, increasing the hay protein by over 1% per ton, even without any yield increase, is profitable. An increase of 1% protein could easily be attended by increasing the legume content of the field to 30%. Also, the net increase with just a new hay seeding in option #3 (no corn silage) would be 42%.

The cost of organic energy concentrate is about $0.24/Mcal ($460 per ton for 0.93 Mcal per lb). Growing corn silage can displace the purchase of energy and costs $0.03/Mcal ($35 per ton for 0.75 Mcal per lb) to produce. Corn silage supplies about 18% less Mcal per lb of feed, however, it is 8 times cheaper than grain corn. Although, corn silage in a crop rotation can reduce off-farm energy purchases it will not fit into every farm’s cropping system. Growing corn adds some complexity to the cropping system. Certainly there is additional equipment and time requirement that comes with growing corn. In addition, for those who have not grown corn organically there is a learning curve to managing weeds and fertility. If you are interested in adding annual crops to the rotation consider trying small acreages initially.

There are other ways to increase the energy value of perennial forages, including proper harvest time. Late harvested forage can result in energy value of 0.39 Mcal per lb feed. If this same forage was harvested prior to “heading” the energy value could be increased 0.51 Mcal per lb of feed. Interestingly, it costs $84 per ton to produce the forage regardless of the amount of Mcal you harvest per acre. As the energy content of the forage declines the cost of producing these energy Mcals increases. Other practices such as wide-swath haylage practices can increase for energy by 6%.

With extremely high grain prices it is essential to produce the highest quality forages on your own farm. Ultimately, improving forage quality and yield will improve your bottom line. In both the frost-seeding and crop rotation options, it seems that improving hayfields should be worthwhile and profitable. But there is always risk in farming - if you do not get the yield or hay quality increases, you may lose money. Remember that these numbers are averages; you will find better figures for your own farm by doing a little experimenting with your cropping. Have a good crop season!

This article was updated from an earlier version written by Nat Bacon and Heather Darby