cows in field

Molasses Makes Milk and Money! An Alternative to High-priced Grain

Forage & Grains

By Karen Hoffman, USDA-NRCS, New York

It’s no secret to anybody in the dairy industry that grain prices are currently high, both organic and conventional. The multiple reasons for it include everything from floods to ethanol to the laws of supply and demand.

The question everybody is asking is “what can we do?”.

For a few farms in New York, the answer is to feed an alternative source of energy at higher than typical rates – molasses, fed anywhere from 1 to 5 pounds per cow per day, depending on production.

One of these farms is that of Jim and Anne Phillips, in Cortland, NY. After working on both organic and conventional dairies in Ohio and Virginia, the young couple and their 3 children have moved to Central New York with a herd of crossbred cows that are milked on a seasonal basis.

They are currently renting a farm from Bob and Nancy Space, former dairy farmers who retired a few years ago. The land had been hayed for approximately 5 years without any applications of commercial fertilizers or pesticides, so was easily certified for organic production.

When Jim and Anne moved to the farm, there was some fencing already in place from when the Space’s used a managed grazing system. Jim has built some additional fence to expand the acreage available for grazing, now totaling 130 acres. Their calves are raised on pasture by nurse cows, with one cow typically having 3 to 4 calves on her. While the grafting process can be time-consuming and frustrating, Jim and Anne feel the calves are healthier and grow better this way. The nurse cows are typically cows that have problem udders, poor milking dispositions, or high somatic cell counts.

The Phillips’ also raise goats and sheep, and some of them graze either before or after the milking cows depending on growth of the pastures and other management factors. The kids enjoy the goats and sheep as 4-H project animals.

Molasses as the primary energy source

As stated before - and the real topic of this article – they feed molasses to their cows as the primary source of energy. It is a certified organic liquid molasses that they purchase from Buffalo Molasses, and is stored in large poly tanks just outside the end of the barn. This spring, they were feeding 2 to 3 pounds of molasses with 1 pound of corn meal and minerals and kelp per cow, and he is milking 56 cows. He doesn’t feed any source of protein, other than what the cows eat from the pasture.

Jim uses the leftover milkhouse chemical containers, cut in half, as feed troughs in the barn (cleaned well, of course). First he puts the corn meal in, and then pours the molasses on top to ensure the cows don’t eat too fast. The cows simply lick the molasses until they reach the corn – and they lick they trough clean.

According to Jim, the molasses flows well during the grazing season and is relatively easy to feed out. Once colder weather sets in, or early in the spring when cows are calving out, he does have a bit of a challenge with the molasses flowing too slowly.

From a nutritional standpoint, the question is whether or not molasses can provide enough energy to meet the cows’ needs. Most nutritionists will say that it can’t, even when fed at a slightly higher rate, because the sugars are used in the rumen too rapidly. The energy content of molasses, as measured by the Net Energy system that is used, is almost equivalent to corn. However, the cows at the Phillips farm, as well as in a few others around the state, indicate otherwise.

This summer, Jim and Anne are helping to identify the reasons why it works better than expected by allowing Karen Hoffman, grazing nutritionist with USDA-NRCS, to collect baseline data on milk production, pasture quality, and body condition. Milk components and milk urea nitrogen (MUN) results from the milk plant are also being tracked. The information is then entered into the Cornell Net Carbohydrate and Protein System (CNCPS) model to compare what’s actually happening on the farm to model predictions. The hope is to collect enough data to show that this is a viable option to reduce feed costs while maintaining milk production and cow health, and submit a grant to collect additional information next year on other farms as well as at Phillips’.

The theory of why molasses works is two-fold. First, when fed at a higher rate the molasses may “coat” the forage particles in the top of the rumen, thus allowing it to stay in the rumen longer. Typically molasses is included in a grain mix, which may allow it to be moved into the liquid portion of the rumen more quickly than when fed alone. Secondly, because there are many different types of sugars in molasses, the breakdown of the sugars may be more extended over time when fed at a higher rate. Fellow organic dairy farmer, and molasses advocate, Jim Gardiner of Otselic, NY says “molasses energy actually substitutes 1 to 3 for corn”. This means the 3 pounds of molasses being fed by the Philips’ is the same as feeding 9 pounds of corn meal. On a daily basis, the three pounds of molasses costs $1.17 per cow, whereas the nine pounds of organic corn meal would cost $2.54 per cow – more than double!

The results so far have been interesting, as Jim’s cows have been producing an average of 50 pounds of milk and body condition has averaged between 2.25 and 2.5. The body condition may seem low, but as a seasonally calving herd it would average on the low side due to all cows being in their peak of production at the same time. MUN’s have averaged 15.7, and components have been 4.25 fat and 3.38 protein.

What does the CNCPS model say? So far it has predicted the cows can only make 40 pounds of milk based on energy, would be losing weight at a rate of 1 to 1.5 pounds per day, and MUN’s would be at 11. The recommended range for MUN is between 10 and 14, so the herd is only slightly above that on average, and has been within the range most of the last year. The model also says that at an organic milk price of $28/cwt, a molasses price of $780/ton, and corn meal price of $565/ton, the income over purchased feed cost is $10.50/head/day – indicating feeding molasses just might be the answer to high organic grain costs.

Hopefully the data collected will provide valuable information for other farmers to use, as well as for justification of some grant funding. Reports from the field indicate that feeding molasses as the primary source of energy doesn’t work for all organic dairy farms, so additional research will help identify the strategies that make it successful.

Stay tuned to NODPA News for occasional updates on this exciting and interesting topic!