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Sitting down with....Dr. Neal Martin

Published on 09 February 2009

Editor’s note: The following is the first in a series of interviews conducted with industry-leading professionals and educators.

Progressive Forage Grower posed the following forward-thinking questions to individuals whose work plays a key role in moving forage production forward over the next several years. Dr. Neal Martin is the director of the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center

Q: How did you get started in the forage industry?

A: As the oldest of six children in our family, living and working on a dairy farm in north-central Ohio, I gained an interest in dairy farming and a respect for dairy farm families.

As choices became available during my career – starting with my decision to seek a Ph.D. in agronomy and animal science and to pursue forage and grassland science at Iowa State University – I wisely followed the advice of my major professor, Walter F. Wedin: “Pursue areas of study and work that interest you – areas you have a passion for

My extension work at the University of Minnesota (1974 to 1999) offered many opportunities to develop a passion for and interest in our dairy forage industries by using science to solve problems with farmers, farm advisers, company representatives and researchers.

In 1983 Jim Linn, a University of Minnesota dairy extension specialist, and I received a grant to investigate the application of near infrared reflectance spectroscopy (NIRS) at the farm level; this was the most significant opportunity to work with and to expand my understanding of the dairy forage industry.

Then, the best opportunity of my career was being offered the position of center director at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center (USDFRC) in Madison, Wisconsin, in March 1999.

Q: What are your responsibilities at the USDFRC?

A: I supervise 18 research scientists, research support scientists, office support personnel and farm support staff from University of Wisconsin – Madison Agricultural Research Stations to carry out the mission of the center.

An integral part of the job – the part I like best – is developing a research strategy that ensures we have the capacity to conduct relevant research that addresses the most important problems of national scope, developing science to enable dairy farm families to have operations that are economically and environmentally sustainable.

The center consists of a laboratory on the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus with 15 scientists and a research farm encompassing 2,006 acres of cropland, pasture land, wooded areas and barns to house and milk 350 cows and 350 replacement heifers at Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin.

The center also owns a new laboratory, called the Institute for Environmentally Integrated Dairy Management (IEIDM), in Marshfield, Wisconsin, that is constructing the second phase of a young heifer-rearing facility (700 head of which 125 first-calf heifers will be milked), which will allow IEIDM scientists, NRCS specialists and the university to investigate dairy manure in storage and in field application.

Q: What information do you offer growers?

A: Our main product is publishing our scientific findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals. However, our scientists and staff have a passion to communicate their research findings to producers and producer educators by annually preparing two-page summaries of their research in the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center Research Report (

They also give talks at dairy and forage producer meetings. Our website has some of these presentations as well as several two-page fact sheets about issues related to the dairy and forage industries (

*Note: A list of materials of interest to forage producers is linked to this interview at

Q: What types of projects related to forage growers do you conduct?

A: Our CRIS projects focus on:

  • improving digestion of forage nutrients

  • feed evaluation methods

  • redesigning forages and forage systems (to enhance nutrient digestion in dairy cattle as well as yield and persistence in the field, especially under grazing and as biomass for biofuels)

  • managing manure nutrients (during storage or field application)

  •  basic forage research (mechanisms within plants that influence availability and digestibility of plant cell walls and nutrients, especially as related to nitrogen utilization of alfalfa silage within the silo and in the cow’s rumen

  • forage-based biofuel production

Q: What changes have you seen in the forage industry over the last 20 years?

A: Hay is grown, harvested, stored and marketed with quality parameters needed to meet animal nutrient requirements. The quality of forage harvested and or purchased for dairy cow diets has increased significantly by adoption of more aggressive and timely harvest decisions.

The adoption of NIRS (a rapid forage testing method) within research labs, both commercial and state forage-testing labs, and hay auctions has resulted in a global economic competitive hay industry within the U.S., especially in the West.

Alfalfa breeding has improved yield, expanded the area of adaptation by incorporating root and crown disease resistance and improved forage quality.

Compressed hay bales have become a major export commodity. Equipment manufacturers have increased hay and silage harvest capacity.

Dairy graziers have shown that maximizing utilization of forage growth by grazing animals has lowered or eliminated forage harvest and storage costs, as well as manure-handling costs, to the point of becoming economically competitive with confinement operations of comparable size.

Q: When producing hay for the dairy industry, what are the most important things to consider?

A: Produce the quality of hay needed by buyers. Know what buyers want. Dairy farmers that advise me on our research efforts remind me often that, when it comes to feeding cows rations with forages, grains, supplements and byproducts, there are actually three different rations to consider:

1. the ration on paper as described by the nutritional composition of each ingredient

2. the ration that is actually fed to the cows, which is not exactly the same as what appears on paper

3. the ration the cow actually eats, which is not exactly the same as what is fed because cows sort ingredients and refuse some feed

This always reminds me that it is essential to know if cows on operations purchasing my hay eat all of it. It would not surprise me if, with hay harvested too dry or too mature, there would be leftover stems in the feedbunk. Grow, harvest and store hay within lots (quantity harvested from the same field under similar weather conditions within one day or less).

Test each lot for relative forage quality (RFQ), crude protein, neutral detergent fiber (NDF), neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFD – 48-hour in-vitro digestion), nonfiber carbohydrate and ash. Acid detergent fiber is used by many western states to predict an energy estimate.

I believe that NDF and NDFD provide more information about potential intake, digestibility (which determines total digestible nutrients) and effective fiber than does a single ADF measurement.

Q: What changes in forage can growers expect over the next few years?

A: I hope to see hay with either lower or different lignin content within the cell wall portion of the plant. This has potential for a 6 to 10 percent increase in fiber digestibility which will increase the energy value of forage and should be enough to allow us to relax harvest schedules – maybe enough to save one or two harvests per season.

I also hope to see forage harvesters for both silage and hay with yield monitors and NIRS instrumentation mounted on feed mixers. Improvements with in-line moisture analysis and electronic identification should allow for marketing of hay lots with narrower moisture contents – possibly leading to more consistent forage quality within hay lots.

Also, I expect an improvement in plant composition that will support less protein degradation in the silo and in the rumen, thereby improving our utilization of nitrogen in alfalfa hay and haylage.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes forage producers make when producing hay?

A: My wife and I purchased a fruit farm a few years ago. Since being a producer of food in a U-pick operation, I choose not to use the word “mistakes.” It is very challenging to produce a crop with Mother Nature.

I think the hay business is constantly challenged to manage risk to establish, grow, manage, harvest and safely store quality products. Knowledge of costs, yields and quality of each lot sold – and providing the customer with the forage quality needed at prices above total costs – are essential to economic sustainability.

There is no substitute for having excellent perennial forage crop establishment skills, timely harvest decision aids and safe storage capacity and management. I am quite surprised to see rectangular alfalfa hay bales (all sizes from three-wire tie through large squares) stored outside without cover.

Q: What other forage crops work well when rotating with alfalfa fields?

A: I do not have enough work experience in the western U.S. to give a good answer here. The research data showing yield boosts from the rotation effect and nitrogen response when either corn or wheat (each of which are grasses) follow alfalfa (a legume) is exceptional.

In addition, alfalfa’s deep root system, and the ability of this system to take up nitrate nitrogen from the soil when it is available or fix nitrogen by symbiosis when it is not, reduces fertilizer costs and provides better use of fertilizer nitrogen; more importantly, it also removes nitrate that could end up in groundwater.

Q: What is the one thing all forage producers should know about forage production?

A: I believe forage production is clearly a challenging business that is economically competitive and environmentally sustainable in the long-term.

Forage producers selling hay are challenged more than many cash crop growers because, to be successful, you need to understand the forage’s value to the consuming livestock and their needs vary. Those that meet the need often have repeat business.

With the long-term nature of forage crops, the use of both legumes and grasses and the opportunity to feed animals (either hay or silage or through grazing), forage production is even more exciting to me now than it was when I was growing up on that dairy farm in Ohio.

Q: If you could change one thing about the forage industry, what would it be?

A: I believe the forage industry is making progress but needs to continue by unifying organizations and clearly agreeing in order to support educational, market and research needs.  FG

Neal Martin
Director for the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center