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Hay: How’s your sustainability?

Mark Boggess for Progressive Forage Published on 27 February 2019
Hay stored outside

The last four years, I’ve served as the director of the USDA U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center (USDFRC) in Madison, Wisconsin.

The USDFRC is an amazing resource where the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) staff, like all good dairymen, consistently focus on producing the best forage possible for the cow herd, which just happens to be the top-ranked herd in the county. Dairymen can relate as they strive to plant the right forages, harvest at the optimal time, pack/inoculate/cover/ferment perfectly, handle and feed with great efficiency, and then watch the cows perform.

When it works, production soars – and when milk production falters, it is almost always a problem with the feed. It takes work and dedication to perfect the nutrition program on any dairy.

Now, as the new director of the USDA U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) in Clay Center, Nebraska, I have a different lens on the livestock world. USMARC is also an amazing research center that has been setting the standard for beef, swine and sheep research since the 1960s.

The science here is more impactful than at any time in history with recent revelations in genetics and genomics, animal health, nutrition, reproduction, animal behavior, food safety, antimicrobial resistance and meat quality that benefit both production agriculture and the food we feed our families.

Let’s briefly contrast these two extraordinary locations from a forage perspective. The USDFRC dairy milks about 400 cows daily and is located on the Badger Munitions Factory from WWII. The farm is 2,200 acres with 1,400 or so tilled. There is no irrigation, and the farm is intensively managed for dairy forage production. The haylage and corn silage program is tight and well managed to produce very high-quality forage and to minimize harvest, storage and feeding losses. This is the modern dairy industry.

Improvements in forage management realized by the dairy industry have also had huge implications for dairy sustainability. Feed remains the single largest expense on a dairy and also the single largest drag on dairy sustainability. But the sustainability story for dairy is remarkable. The average Holstein cow in 1950 produced about 9,000 pounds of milk. That number is now approaching 30,000 pounds, and the record lactation is now approaching 80,000 pounds.

Obviously, the more milk produced per pound of feed, the more efficient and sustainable the dairy industry becomes. Today’s dairy industry, compared to the industry of the 1940s, uses 65 percent less water, 90 percent less land and has a carbon footprint 63 percent smaller.

Those are remarkable improvements and are a testament to improved genetics, health, nutrition, management and product development. It is an amazing story that continues to this day. In fact, the rate of genetic gain in dairy has tripled over the last 10 years. Sustainability in dairy is being positively impacted in many ways.

At USMARC, located on the Hastings Navy Ammunitions Depot also from WWII, we have 34,000 acres of extensive rangelands and farmed acres. Here, we house 8,000 beef cows and farm or graze 7,300 irrigated acres. Our rangelands include cool- and warm-season grasses. We produce corn grain, corn silage, alfalfa, annual forages, perennial forage pastures, soybeans and a few acres of oats or other rotation crops. We also employ cover crops extensively and are adding more annual forages, which are grazed or harvested – sometimes both.

So how do we manage all of that? To start, we have excellent farm and ranch crews. We also have a full-time forage management team that oversees all grazing and pasture management. We conduct weekly forage inventories year-round, and we employ grazing consultants to provide further guidance. We are focusing more on soil and forage plant health instead of short-term AUMs. All of these programs are making a difference on the ground – better soils, better forages and more feed.

How about hay production? Are we as progressive with those acres as we are with farm and grazing management? Have we focused on forage efficiency and quality like the dairy industry?

Hmmm, not so much. More on that in a minute.

Improving the sustainability of a beef operation is not much different from a dairy, and the improvements have been just as remarkable for beef. Improved genetics, health, nutrition, and product safety and quality have produced extraordinary results. Since 1977, the beef industry has reduced the number of beef cows by 33 percent while maintaining the same level of beef produced but with much higher quality. The industry has also decreased its carbon footprint by 16 percent. These are real sustainability successes but yet, now more than ever, the beef industry is under pressure to further improve sustainability.

So my challenge to beef producers, is: How well are you improving sustainability on your farm and ranch? Are you using the best available genetics for your region? Are you employing the best nutrition, reproduction and health programs? Have you improved your animal management and animal husbandry skills? Are you improving your range and pasture lands while also improving soil health? And are you managing your hay production to optimize quality and efficiency?

At USMARC, we are improving our farm and ranch management, soil health, animal production and efficiency. We have an annual goal to improve our grazed forage production and management by 10 percent, with a corresponding 10 percent decrease in hay fed. I can accurately say we are improving in our sustainability measures, except for one. We do not do “hay” very well. In fact, that is an understatement.

For many reasons, some financial and some bureaucratic, we have not improved our hay production program. We are still storing hay in large round bales in open stackyards. We do not store hay inside or even cover it with net wrap, and we are “paying the price” in hay quality and preservation. This year, the majority of our alfalfa acres received rain on the windrows – bad. Our first-cutting hay was baled and placed in rows in the stackyards and has since been drenched by almost 30 inches of precipitation – very bad. That means 40 percent of the hay in those bales is now waste – either rotten or very moldy. They are also not very fun to process in the hay feeding equipment.

So why would we go to all of that trouble to improve our grazing management, build soils, improve our cows and herd health and management, and all other measures of sustainability – and then give most of that value back by mismanaging hay production?

Good question. No good answer. So what are we going to do?

The short answer is: We are now evolving our programs. We have the financial incentive, we have figured out a way to address the bureaucratic challenges, and we must always improve our support of research programs. Here are the steps we are taking:

1. We are installing hoop buildings to house 400 to 500 bales in stackyard locations across the center. We are also using stack covers until we can complete the hoops.

2. We are converting from round to large square bales to facilitate in-field and hay storage efficiencies, and updating our windrowing equipment.

3. And we are adopting low-lignin alfalfa varieties, not because we need dairy hay but to provide a larger weather window for harvest. Low lignin may also allow us to go from four annual cuttings to three with the same total yield.

The goal of these steps is to greatly improve feed value while reducing the need for hay by 30 percent, which means we can reassign 30 percent of our alfalfa acres. That is a big step forward for the sustainability (and profitability) of our beef systems, and it is time for us to put our words into action with regard to sustainability.

Do your forage programs contribute to the sustainability of your beef enterprise and to the larger industry? I would like to hear your thoughts.

Last, in research reported recently, Don Ort at the University of Illinois and Paul South at the USDA-ARS lab in Urbana, Illinois, have modified a plant to improve photorespiration, which in turn optimizes photosynthesis. These changes produced a 40 percent increase in biomass compared to controls along with improvements to heat tolerance. What are the potential implications of this work for alfalfa, perennial grasses, annual forages or corn silage? The future holds great promise for food production and sustainability. Stay tuned.  end mark

PHOTO: Hay stored outside will lose quality much quicker than hay stored indoors. Why go to all the trouble of haying and then lose the quality? Photo by Lynn Jaynes.

Mark Boggess
  • Mark Boggess

  • Director
  • U.S. Meat Animal Research Center - Clay, Nebraska
  • Email Mark Boggess

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