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Sitting down with....Dan Undersander, Extension Forage Agronomist, University of Wisconsin

Darren Olsen Published on 16 September 2009

Q. What is your background in the forage industry?

A. I grew up on a dairy farm in central Minnesota.

Forages were always the most dependable component of the dairy ration we could produce and which we maximized in the ration. I did my graduate work in forages at Purdue University on brown midrib corn and sorghum.

I then worked for Texas A&M for 10 years in the Texas Panhandle doing research with wheat pasture and irrigated alfalfa production.

I went to South Carolina for three years and worked with warm season grasses and year-round grazing of beef cattle. And then I came to Wisconsin 20 years ago and began a program of research and extension in grazing, hay and silage-making of forages.

Q. What are your primary roles at your current position at the University of Wisconsin?

A. My position at UW is in research and extension. My research efforts are in four areas:

1) management of alfalfa for hay and silage, conducting the largest alfalfa variety trial in the U.S.; managing to minimize disease and insect pests; and evaluating new GMO germplasms.

2) examining use of different grass germplasms in production systems, e.g., heading versus non-heading ryegrasses, grass rotational value, grass in dairy rations.

3) trials to develop optimum management practices for intensively grazed pastures considering forage, yield, quality and effect on wildlife. Have studies determining responses of grasses to grazing animals and determining phosphorus needs of growing cattle on pasture. Established a study looking at corn and sorghum-sudangrass to provide summer grazing.

4) develop equations for Near Infrared Reflectance spectroscopy for release to commercial forage-testing laboratories. Have released equations for digestions kinetics of grasses/legume and in vitro digestion of corn silage. Studying methods to adapt equations to platforms of different companies while retaining accuracy and repeatability among instruments.

In my extension effort I am co-team leader of the forages team involving specialists and county agents from across the state, responsible for developing programming directions, efforts and tools needed for forages extension.

I have relayed research-based agronomic information to the public through radio, tapes, newspaper and magazine articles, websites and other media outlets. I generally give 50 to 60 talks per year speaking to over 5,000 people.

Q. How has your role in forage production changed over the years?

A. My role has changed as both the needs have changed and technology has changed. Twenty years ago rotational grazing was just getting started in the dairy industry here; now it is well established.

Custom harvesting was just beginning 15 years ago; now we estimate that 30 to 40 percent of forage acreage is contract harvested. But new issues have arisen such as fertilizer costs, disaster losses and mycotoxins in forages.

From the technology standpoint, our website has been very successful. Both consultants and farmers now get more information from the web.

Some are beginning to use blogs and we have had a successful series of webinars. These new technologies allow us to bring information to more farmers and to reduce our travel and travel costs.

Q. What projects are you and the forage team at UW currently working on?

A. We are continuing to do on-farm testing to determine how various practices really impact the farmers using them.

We are also continuing to develop information for the website and to provide information to farmers using new technologies, such as YouTube videos. I will continue evaluating some of the new biotechnologies for farmer use.

Q. What is the biggest mistake you see forage growers making when it comes to forage quality?

A. I think the biggest mistake forage growers make is not to recognize the rate of forage quality change on a daily basis. They wait for less of a chance of rain and lose forage quality in the standing crop instead of taking risk or managing for optimum drying rate.

The second-biggest mistake is not to preserve hay well, allowing, for example, round bales to rot in the field rather than store them to minimize loss.

Q. What advances in cropping technologies do you see coming for forage growers in the next few years?

A. There will be many biotech traits that greatly improve the yield and quality of alfalfa. The low lignin trait looks like it will reduce the number of cuttings and increase yield at the same alfalfa quality.

The bypass protein trait (tannins moved from red clover to alfalfa) will greatly increase the value of protein in haylage for dairy cattle. Other traits will increase drought tolerance, salt tolerance and low soil pH.

Q. What do you see as future opportunities for forage growers?

A. I think the opportunities are great for those growers who recognize forage as the cornerstone of their dairy and beef operations and treat it as a valued crop rather than ignoring it.

New varieties of grass and legumes perform much better than old types. I also see value in combining grass with legumes in dairy rations. I see opportunities to increase the percentage of forage in dairy rations and improve animal health.

I see continued opportunities to grow forage for sale. There will be many opportunities to grow forage for bioenergy production, which will also provide wildlife benefits.

Q. What else would you like to say about forage production we haven’t covered?

A. Most of the world feeds much more forage to beef and dairy animals then we do in the U.S. I think changes are coming that will allow much more forage in animal rations in the U.S. than we have used in the last 30 years, which will benefit the grower and simultaneously result in less erosion, pollution and improved wildlife populations.  FG

Dr. Dan Undersander
Extension Forage Agronomist
University of Wisconsin