cows in field

Maximizing Milk On Homegrown Forages And Grains

Production Resources | Forages & Grains

By Lisa McCrory

Added May 15, 2008. The cost of fuel and feed has been increasing at an unpredictable and astronomical rate since the fall of 2007. A drought in many parts of the Northeast in 2007 did not help matters. The weather conditions led to low forage yields, a shorter grazing season, and the need to purchase forages and grain to make it through to the next growing season. All this is compounded by a very wet 2006, where feed quality in many places was poor because producers could not get onto their fields to harvest. It seems like each load of grain is creeping higher and higher with no end in sight.

To address this situation, UVM Extension and NOFA-VT worked together to organize a series of workshops titled ‘Maximizing Milk on Homegrown Feeds’. This workshop traveled to 4 regions of Vermont and included presentations from Rick Kersbergen, University of Maine Extension; Karen Sullivan of USDA NRCS in NY; Sid Bosworth of UVM Extension; Heather Darby, UVM Extension; and organic dairy producers Guy Choiniere, Jack Lazor, Earl Fournier, Brent Beidler, Earl Ransom, Dan Tilley and Joe Hescock. Two to three producers shared the stage at each location, presenting their strategies for growing high quality forages and grains including the crops they grow, crop rotations, feeding programs production goals and economics.

Nutritional Needs


The day started by talking about the nutritional needs of the ruminant. Forage quality was discussed from the perspective of the microbes living in the rumen of the cow. Plants in their young, vegetative stage provide the highest quality, most digestible, feed for the microbes. A young plant generally consists of 40% cellulose (digestible fraction), 50% hemicellulose (digestible fraction) and 10% lignin while a mature plant contains 20% cellulose, 30% hemicellulose and 50% lignin. If you let your hay crop become more mature before harvesting, it turns a plant that was 80-90% digestible into one that is only 50% digestible. Rumen bugs can very easily break through the cell wall of a vegetative plant while the wall of a mature plant is much more difficult.

As expected, young plants have higher protein, lower fiber and higher energy. Maximizing intake from high quality forages can reduce your concentrate needs while maintaining good production levels and good animal body condition.

Dry matter intake potential of the cow is dependent upon the NDF (Neutral Detergent Fiber) and the ADF (Acid Detergent Fiber) of your feed; ADF reflects energy available and the NDF measures intake potential. Giving the rumen bugs the best quality forage with the least amount of fiber can have the greatest impact on intake. Forage should be 60% to 100% of the ruminant’s diet and pasture is by far the cheapest forage, providing you with a very inexpensive source of protein. Because pasture forage (grazed at 6-8 inches) is so digestible, dry matter intake potential is greater and can provide an additional 2 lbs of additional milk for every extra lb of dry matter consumed.

To determine how much forage a cow can eat, one must determine the NDF of the forage. A cow can eat about 0.8 – 1.0% of her body weight in NDF if the forage quality is low, up to 1.2% of her body weight in NDF if the forage quality is high, and 1.4% of her body weight in NDF on high quality pasture. A ration with some grain and good pasture can have the cow eating 3.5 – 4.0% of her bodyweight in dry matter per day provided the NDF is no higher than 45%.

What is Fed in the Barn Will Directly Affect What the Cow Will Graze

For every pound of forage that you feed in the barn, your cow will eat 1 pound less on pasture, and for every pound of grain fed, she will eat about half a pound less on pasture. Research conducted by Fred Provenza ( has shown that what is fed in the barn will directly affect what the cow will graze when she is out on pasture. Preference for protein or energy will depend upon what requirements were provided earlier, so a ration high in protein will have the cows looking for the highest sources of energy (grasses, young plants) from pasture and a ration low in protein and high in energy will have cows looking for sources of protein (clover, alfalfa, forbs).

Good quality, vegetative pasture is high in digestible protein, which is broken down to Amino Acids, Peptides and Ammonia. The degradable protein gets used by the microbes, who match it up with energy. If there is not enough energy to match to protein, the excess protein gets converted to ammonia and then it goes into the bloodstream (which takes energy to do) and off to the liver. The liver converts the ammonia to urea (taking more energy) and then gets excreted. So if you are feeding a protein concentrate to your animals while on pasture, you are paying for protein that you don’t need which is using up valuable energy to excrete from the cow (literally ‘pissing your money away’). Appropriate levels of Milk Urea Nitrogen (MUN) = 10-14; high MUN levels can lead to laminitis & poor reproductive performance.



Ways to reduce off-farm grain inputs was discussed and included the following options; 1) improving pasture management and forage quality, 2) improving quality of stored forages and 3) introducing other crops to the farm.

By improving forage quality from a 14% to a 17% protein, you would be able to reduce the protein level and the volume of grain fed, which could offer some significant savings. Rick Kersbergen presented a scenario showing how a farm could save $25,000 in grain expenses just by having forage quality from 100 acres of grass/legume hay improve from 14% protein to 17% protein (see box at left).

Some other important tidbits Rick shared were; 1) delaying first cut by 5 days can cost a 100 cow dairy $8000 in extra feed cost or lost milk production due to lower forage quality, 2) Forage maturity is the number one factor in quality 3) quality only declines after the plant is cut, and 4) more rapid drying will reduce losses as respiration losses are the most severe nutritional losses.

Research trials are currently being conducted on farms in Maine and at the UNH organic dairy farm. They are in their 2nd year of looking at 4 different feeding combinations using corn silage, perennial forages and home grown grains (not pellets). They are also investigating options to improve old sods on dairy farms using either improved grazing management or reseeding. These trials are being done over a 3-4 year period and will provide information on costs, risks, equipment and management needed so that farmers in the Northeast can decide what makes the most sense on their farms.

What about feeding no grain?

Most numbers show that feeding grain is still cost effective even at the currently high prices. What happens in a zero grain diet? The grasses and legumes harvested by the cows enter the rumen with varying levels of fermentable energy, which is the limiting factor on pasture. There is an ideal energy to protein ration that must be met in order for the cow to turn her feed into milk. With high sugar grasses you can make even more milk, and some farms are using a higher pre-grazing height with a small amount of molasses as an energy source. Much of the dairy genetics on our farms today have not been selected to perform well without a supplemental fermentable energy source but many grass-based farmers have invested years into building good grazing genetics, allowing them to do well as a 100% grass-fed dairy.

What about growing your own grain or small grain silage ?


Growing your own grain can have some benefits and some challenges that one must consider. Do you have the time, labor, equipment, enough land, the right soils and the skills to do this?

Incorporating grains into a farm requires a crop rotation that can offer improvements to underproductive perennial sods, and provides lots of opportunities for growing high quality forages such as warm season grasses for grazing during the summer slump. Small grains have flexibility in their harvesting, storage and feeding methods; many of the producers at these workshops spoke highly of small grain silage stating that it was high quality, high yielding, and very palatable feed.
How much grain you grow depends partly on the amount of land that you have, but can also be determined by the amount of grain that you plan on feeding. If you are feeding 10 lbs per head per day over the year, you would be need about 2 tons per cow per year. With yields of 2 tons of grain corn per acre, you would need 60 acres to produce enough corn for 60 cows. If you have a 4-year crop rotation, you would need at least 240 acres of tillable land available to you and if you had a 5-year crop rotation, you would need at least 300 acres.

The producers that participated in these workshops shared very useful information filled with wisdom and experience gained from growing grains and forages year after year on their farms. No farm was alike in what they grew and how they did it, which made sense as each farm has its own history, topography, and soil types. What was also interesting to learn from these producers is that each year most of them are trying something new and sometimes the weather and the growing season will dictate whether or not the crop is a grain crop or a forage crop for that year.

Recently a new group called the Northern Grain Growers Association was formed. This group includes growers and farmers from all over the Northeast region plus a few farmers from Quebec. For more information about this new association, please contact Dr Heather Darby, 802-524-6501 x 206, or email her at: