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0608 PD: Alfalfa technology helps producers, growers boost profitability

Published on 14 April 2008

Have you looked at the commodity futures markets lately? If you’re cringing right now, it’s most likely because you’ve seen corn futures projected to climb higher than $5 per bushel and soybeans on the march to record highs, too. Because these prices aren’t expected to drop anytime soon, dairy producers continue to find ways to lower costs, sometimes by substituting cheaper feedstuffs with a lower nutrient value. But one feedstuff producers can’t cut corners with is high-quality alfalfa for the nutrition, health and productivity it provides. For growers, high-quality, high-yielding alfalfa can mean additional profits in the bank.

We’re learning that alfalfa growers and dairy producers need the same thing – getting the highest yield from their business. No matter if you’re working to get the highest yield from each acre farmed or the most milk from each pound of dry matter fed, maximizing revenue in a time of high break-even prices is even more critical.

Getting the most from your acres
For dairy producers to get the best forages possible, they must rely heavily on those growing the crops. For alfalfa growers, it looks like profits per acre may increase in the coming year but so will input costs. Fertilizer, fuel, labor, land and equipment have all seen an upward climb over the last year, so it’s no surprise the end-crop is more costly to dairy producers. When growing alfalfa as a cash crop, getting the greatest return per acre means maximizing yield by increasing tonnage.

But to get the greatest value, growers need to produce high-quality forages. Because both quantity and quality factor into hay values, dairy customers have a vested interest in how the crop was grown and what type of alfalfa was harvested. To generate the most profits while still providing the best forages, consider the latest alfalfa technology proven to deliver the highest combination of forage yield and quality.

The recent ruling that Roundup Ready alfalfa is no longer an option means alfalfa growers must use other available technology to optimize profits from each acre. Alfalfa growers can now choose from two available options: conventional or hybrid alfalfa. Hybrid alfalfa is an attractive alternative and has solid research to prove it.

Hybrid alfalfa is technology providing great yield potential. University research and on-farm strip-plot trials have shown hybrid alfalfa delivering a 15 percent yield advantage over conventional alfalfa varieties over the last six years. But yield is only one of the positive attributes; other characteristics include:

Palatability. Hybrid alfalfa has finer stems, which makes it more palatable for the cow. Dairy producers will be interested in hybrid alfalfa because dry matter intake (DMI) and rumen health are essential to high production.

Bale attractiveness. Finer-stemmed alfalfa packs extremely well, which means more quality feed can be stored in attractive bales. More feed in each bale also means fewer bales the dairy producer has to store before feed-out.

Faster dry-down. Especially when time is of the essence in the field, faster dry-down means faster harvesting, and less opportunity for Mother Nature to reduce feed quality.

Drought-resistant. Less water is needed to produce high yields of hybrid alfalfa. Hybrid varieties also emerge from the ground quicker to cover the soil surface, which reduces the effect of wind damage to young seedlings.

Uniformity. When the forage being harvested is uniform in maturity, the result is a more consistent, quality forage, with less work in the field.

More profit. The opportunity to yield more high-quality, uniform alfalfa increases with the use of hybrid technology, leading to additional profits per acre.

Harvesting high-quality forages completes the first half of the alfalfa life cycle. Once it’s off the field and stored, now it’s time to get it into the cows. Especially when feed prices are high, getting the most nutrients from each bite is critical, and feeding alfalfa hay is no exception.

Getting the most from each bite
According to Dr. Mireille Chahine, extension dairy specialist at the University of Idaho, there’s a reason that alfalfa is considered the queen of forages. Alfalfa hay is a main nutrient source producers rely on to maintain high production, rumen health and profitability. She says that even though alfalfa hay has increased in price over the last year, the increases in corn, soybeans and other feedstuffs still position alfalfa as an exceptional buy for the nutrients it provides the ration.

When it comes to adding alfalfa to the ration at Blue Royal Farms of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, owner Bob Staudinger knows how important a quality alfalfa forage source is. In his herd of 800 milking cows, hybrid alfalfa has been a key component in the ration and his alfalfa acreage for the past five years. The farm completed side-by-side test plots in 2002 and found that the hybrid alfalfa harvested on their farm had a 13 percent yield advantage over conventional alfalfa. Since then, Blue Royal Farms has planted almost 100 percent hybrid alfalfa and enjoys the results they have experienced.

“The goal on our farm is to maximize our tons per acre of quality forage,” says Staudinger. “Hybrid alfalfa helps us achieve these goals while also giving us a very consistent plant in the field when we’re ready for harvest.”

The 500 acres of hybrid alfalfa are not only high-yielding for Blue Royal Farms, but the quality of hybrid alfalfa is also helping the cows increase DMI and improve milk production.

“Cows like consistency and their ration is no different,” adds Staudinger. “When we started feeding hybrid alfalfa, we noticed how consistent it was from day to day. We saw cows eat more, helping to improve herd milk production. Milk production has climbed to 80 pounds per cow per day since feeding hybrid alfalfa.”

What makes hybrid alfalfa so important to Staudinger’s farm is the important key nutrients it delivers for a balanced ration – effective fiber, protein and energy. Effective fiber, says Chahine, can’t entirely come from byproducts intended to replace alfalfa in the ration, like distillers grains. Effective fiber is so important because it increases rumination and saliva production, creating an optimal rumen environment for microbial activity. Without this effective fiber, cows are more prone to experience acidosis, which results from low rumen pH. This can then lead to more serious problems like laminitis and reduced DMI, milk fat and milk production.

To provide the necessary effective fiber, while also maintaining high yield per acre in the fields, Staudinger has found that alfalfa hybrids are the answer for his operation. As a grower and producer, he’s been able to reap the benefits of both worlds: finer-stemmed forage that is more palatable and good for the cows, while still maintaining high forage yields from the field. Alfalfa hybrids, he says, have been a win-win situation for his operation.

“We’ve seen our feed costs really go high this past year, which makes feed quality that much more important. Hybrid alfalfa offers us high tonnage with higher levels of protein, helping to control our protein costs,” says Staudinger. “Between the consistency of the plant and improved milk production leading to economic improvements, hybrid alfalfa has been great for our operation.”

Chahine recommends a four additional nutritional practices to maintain rumen health and milk production while getting the most from your ration nutrients:

Limit major ration changes. Producers should make three or fewer major ration changes throughout the year, she advises. Especially with the exceptionally high milk price, too-frequent changes can result in lower milk production and lead to lower profitability.

Use supply wisely. High-quality alfalfa doesn’t need to be fed to all of the cows, but should be wisely distributed to the cows needing it the most. Early lactation and high-producing cows should have first dibs on the best forages.

Utilize precision feeding. Precision feeding, Chahine says, means feeding cows the exact nutrients they need rather than exceeding these requirements. When nutrient requirements are exceeded, it can result in nutrient excretion, leading to decreased profitability and increased environmental concerns. When high-quality alfalfa hay is limited, mix different qualities of alfalfa together to meet the herd’s nutrition needs while making the best alfalfa hay last longer.

Train employees properly. Especially with high feed costs, there’s even less room for error when it comes to mixing feed and feed bunk management. Make sure your employees responsible for mixing and delivering the feed match the ration formulated on paper to the one delivered to the feedbunk.

When it comes to profitability on the dairy farm, both the grower and the dairy producer rely heavily on high-quality alfalfa forages to ensure maximum profitability.  PD

–Submitted by Dairyland Seed

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