Increased use of forage on US dairy farms

Exploring the world of high quality forage production and utilisation with Ray Morrison, Technical Director with specialist agricultural merchant Morton’s.

At a conference which I recently attended in the UK, a presentation was given on the US dairy industry and the changes which have taken place there over the past 15 years. Some of the changes will be similar to those which have happened locally.

Cow numbers have not changed significantly from the year 2000, but herd numbers have gone down from 105,250 to 43,500, whilst average herd size has increased from 88 to 214 during the same period. However, almost half of the herds are greater than 1000 cows, which is a dramatic increase from 15 years ago.

We always associate the US dairy industry with high concentrate usage, but there has been a sea change there with forage now accounting for more than 60% on a dry matter basis of the TMR ration. Maize silage is the predominant forage on US dairy farms, but the speaker said some of our grass silages were of equal quality and would provide equal performance.

He went on to say that, “An acute awareness of ration nutrient costs plus nutrient management on and off the farm, allied with a cow wellbeing agenda from the public through the milk supermarkets and milk buyers, has meant an investment in new cow friendly housing and precision dairy nutrition.”

Attention to detail was deemed to be the key, with all elements being considered - from availability of water to forage DMs. It was advised that each cow should have a minimum of 3 inches of accessible linear trough space; with troughs refreshed fast enough to meet the cow’s needs and cleaned on a regular basis – as no-one likes to drink dirty water!

It seems to be common practice to measure dry matter of forages on a daily basis, particularly on the large dairy units. This is because rations are formulated on a DM basis and TMR mixers are loaded on a fresh weight basis, so any DM variation in forages can have a significant impact on cow intakes; they even take account of days when they have heavy rain. Measurement of how much TMR is fed and how much is refused is commonplace to check if cow intakes are on target. Faeces is checked for grain passing through to check on rumen efficiency, with changes made to the diet where necessary with the aim of starch losses around 2.2%

Cornell University looked at 16 herds in 2004/5 feeding high levels of forage (from 60-80% on a DM basis) and found that there was improved milk component yield, less purchased grain, improved income over feed cost, less foot health problems and lower involuntary cull rates, leading to better herd longevity overall.

It seems that for all ruminant livestock, forage, and more of it, is the way forward.

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