Growing High Quality Forages
This article was first printed in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Do your cows have “happy lines”? Karl Dallefeld, of Prairie Creek Cattle Company, Worthington, IA, was a little surprised when visitors from South Africa expressed satisfaction in seeing ridges on his grazing herd’s abdomens. The group told Dallefeld that ridges at the rumen fill, or “happy lines”, are a quick indicator of animal health, and that his herd of mixed breed organic beef looked very good.
How does Dallefeld maintain those “happy lines”? By offering high quality forages to the herd. High nutrient forages are not only an important element in maintaining a ruminant’s health, but are also a cost effective way to produce quality organic meat and milk. Dallefeld outlined his forage production tips at a workshop titled “Optimizing Forage Quality and Hay Profitability” at the 2008 MOSES Organic Farming Conference.
Dallefeld explained that there are four rules to follow to succeed at producing quality forages. The following are true whether producing forages for grazing or for storage:
It Starts in the Soil
First, it is important to know what soil resource you have. And that means soil tests. Karl likes to send samples into a lab several times a season just to keep up with how his soil base is changing, but recommends at the least testing once a year, and always before you buy or lease a new property so that you can see how much work you have to do! A soil test will show any excesses or deficiencies and give you a sense of the mineral balance you have to work with. The soil report should be studied carefully and plans for corrections made, using a balance of soluble and slow-release nutrients. Test soils in each field or paddock, and manage accordingly. Dallefeld is rotationally grazing beef, and so is managing his soils to produce quality pasture and hay. He goes into some detail on ideal levels for various soil measures in order to produce quality forages.
Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) indicates the soil’s ability to hold and exchange nutrients, or as Dallefeld notes, is the soil’s “gas tank”. A light sandy soil will show a CEC of 6-8 (meq/100g), heavy soils will show 20-25. Lighter soils will need to be continually fed to hold nutrients that can be transferred to plants. CEC can be raised by building up organic matter, which is accomplished by adding plant and animal matter, which will decompose into hummus. Pure hummus shows a CEC of 200-300. Organic matter content should ideally be heading toward a reading of 7-10%. Organic matter content is depleted by most conventional farm practices, and must be rebuilt through the use of green manures and plow downs, the addition of compost and manures.
Any amendments to the soil have one of two effects: soil corrections are working to address inbalances in the soil, are generally slow release and will have long-term effects, while fertilizers will have a faster release of nutrients to feed the current crop. Depending on the farm budget available for improving soil conditions, one can plan that it will take up to five years of applications to correct soil imbalances. Karl considers a soil to be roughly in balance if a quality crop can be produced without the addition of nitrogen. In a pasture situation, any amendments need to work through the sod into the soil profile. Ideally soil corrections will be done as a pasture is being renovated or when a new hay crop is planted so that amendments can be mixed into the top soil layer.
A soil penetrometer can be used to asses sub-surface soil compaction. Compaction is important, as soil roots generally can’t penetrate soil compacted beyond 200psi. Any soil packed harder than this will force the roots to stop growing down and instead spread to the side, significantly altering the plant’s ability to take up moisture and nutrients.
Carl outlined MWBioAg recommendations of mineral levels for balanced soils and quality forage production (Table A)
Know the Components of Quality Forage
Quality Silage corn: ideally you want to aim for pH 3.8 after fermentation, this means there has been enough sugars and biology to bring the fermentation on fast. Crude protein should test over 8, with lignin in the 2-4 range. Dry matter should be about 82%, and starch content 32-40%. Fat should test over 3, with sugars 9-11 before fermentation and over 5 after. (see enclosed chart B on desirable levels)
Comparison forage test levels for both alfalfa haylage and afalafa/grass haylage are shown in chart C. These charts show that pure alfalfa and alfalfa grass haylage can both test well for forage quality. Although hay tends to be sold by relative feed value (RFV), we want more information than this to know the relative forage quality. A measurement of relative forage quality (RFQ) takes into account the crude protein level. Relative forage quality level is measured after the forage has been in the rumen for 48 hours, and the higher the level the more digestible.
The nitrogen:sulfur ratio is important in determining forage quality. This ratio should be between 10:1 and 12:1. Sulfur binds with the nitrogen in the rumen. If there isn’t enough sulfur in the feed, free nitrogen will accumulate and cause chronic health problems in dairy cows. Beef will also have negative impacts, but less dramatically so.
In the forage mix, legumes will draw up calcium and grasses will draw up phosphorus. Phosphorus in forages is 100% available to the ruminant, whereas in a mineral mix the phosphorus will only be about 30% available, so you want to get as much phosphorus into the plant source as possible for best mineral transfer to your livestock. Higher calcium levels will bring up phosphorus and magnesium. Potassium needs to be carefully managed, as you don’t want an excess.
Use Forage Blends
Karl notes that it is important to not skimp on seed on a pasture establishment, as it is a lot easier to get things started on a prepared seed bed. He emphasizes the importance of a well worked seed bed- you don’t want to overwork the bed, but work it well to ensure good soil-seed contact.
Karl’s recommended seeding rates to establish a diverse pasture are as follows (total 25-30 pounds of seed per acre). He uses a Brillion seeder, with chickory, trefoil and legumes in the alfalfa box, grasses in the oat box. He also has tried seeding with a spinner and rolling with good success.
5-6 pounds fescue: has a deep root, is heat and drought tolerant. Needs deep soil.
Karl uses a forage chain throughout the grazing season to keep high quality nutrients in front of the cattle all season. He starts with early spring planting of oats and rape. This is grazed when ready. This is then tilled in and grazing corn planted, which shows a good yield but can only be grazed once. After that comes hybrid sudan grass, then teff (a warm season annual from South Africa). He finishes up with sorghum sudan. This is tilled in in mid September, and rye grain is planted. This is grazed twice, first at 10” and then at 4” with hay supplement. He plants turnips and oats as a stockpile crop for fall.
His mixed herd of red angus, herford angus and angus devon has access to free choice minerals, including redmond salt, kelp and a mineral mix. Karl buys in 500-650 pound calves and feeds them out, finishing on pasture, ideally the following June or July. He weighs the cattle every 30-40 days, and sees a high end of 3.3-3.4 pounds of gain per day in animals over 1,000 pounds. He also sees gain a lot lower than this, but trys to select for high-gain animals. His goal is to finish while out on pasture (15 months) but some years needs to feed stored forage through 17 to 22 months, depending on the breed and frame size.
Cut, Inoculate and Store Properly
Silage bags should be filled as quickly as possible. Silos must be packed with enough weight for the forage to compact so that molds don’t grow. Round bales should be wrapped several times. Big rounds will lose nutrients, as much as 1/3, if not covered. Storage inside helps, as does covering with tarps. Ground should be kept clean around silage bags to discourage mice, as they will chew into the bag and let air in. Walk the outside of the bags every few days to check for coon damage, as they too will damage the bags. Be careful when feeding out of a bunk, you don’t want to crack the silage- air coming in will start the fermentation process and create opportunities for mold to form.
The End Result
Customers of Prairie Creek Cattle Company are the ones who ultimately benefit from Karl’s careful and comprehensive soil management system. By closely balancing soil minerals, he ensures quality feed and strong, healthy and fast growing beef producing very high quality, nutritional meat. Plus, cattle exhibiting strong “happy lines”!Return to TOP