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Forage fed vs. corn silage in dairy cattle

Quebec researcher says that since dairy farmers are paid based on components, forage-fed cattle can outperform those fed on corn silage

Corn silage use is trending on Quebec’s large dairy farms, but Valacta’s Robert Berthiaume argues farmers who run against the herd can bulk up their bottom line with perennial forages.

“If you make the best use you can of perennial forages, you can make a lot of money, at least as much or more than your friends with corn silage,” says the forage systems expert for Quebec and Atlantic Canada’s dairy herd improvement agency. “We’re trying to prove to our clients that the milk that is produced by (perennial) forages can and should be the most economical milk that is in that bulk tank.”

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For Berthiaume, the key lies in component pricing. Dairy farmers get paid for fat, protein, and other solids in their milk, rather than total milk volume. So even if an alfalfa and grass-fuelled herd doesn’t crank out the same volume as a herd powered by corn silage, it can hold an edge on components.

He points to a 2013 New York State study of six herds. Five were fed corn silage as the bulk of their forage, while one herd relied on a grass/legume mix. In terms of output, the legume/grass-fed cows placed second from the bottom, at 88 pounds per cow per day. But in gross income per cow, those same perennial forage eaters finished second from the top.

The secret? The herd outperformed its peers in components, (especially milk fat, at 4.3 per cent.) When it comes to milk production, Berthiaume says high components are what “really writes the cheque.”

The milk from forage equation

One way to gauge the efficiency of forage use is the “milk from forage” (MF) calculation developed at Laval University in the 1970s. “In Quebec, the concept is quite well known,” Berthiaume says, adding “it hasn’t been exported very well.”

The math behind MF looks complex, but the basic concept is simple. If you subtract the milk production boost from concentrates, you’re left with output that’s fuelled by forages. By further subtracting the forage required to maintain the cow, you’re left with the total milk produced by the forage in the diet.

Not surprisingly, herds with high MF tend to be efficient producers. But when the paycheque comes, the most efficient farmers using perennial forages outperform their corn silage counterparts.

Using detailed financial and production figures from 672 Quebec dairy farms, Berthiaume says the top 20 per cent of corn silage-fed herds produced 136 more kilograms per cow every year. But in terms of net income, the perennial forage herds brought in an additional $184 per cow.

To produce at those high levels, producers must maximize intake of high-quality forage. That requires the sophisticated use of complementary concentrates, with the right mix of proteins, sugars and starches.

It’s a complex balancing act, because “every time you feed concentrate to an animal that is on a forage diet, the animal will reduce its forage intake,” Berthiaume warns. This substitution impact is also most significant with high-quality forages, rather than poorer hay or silage.

Closing the productivity gap

There are significant advantages for those who get it right. The top 20 per cent of Quebec producers are pumping out 3,751 more kilograms of milk and $833 more net income per cow than their counterparts in the bottom-performing 20 per cent of dairy farms. If less-productive farms can close that gap, it will mean major gains for individual farms and the entire industry.

Then there’s the herd-size gap. Not surprisingly, corn silage herds tend to be bigger, averaging 91 cows. On large farms, corn silage is attractive because it offers roughly twice the yield of perennial forage. Better still, it delivers the yield in one cut, versus three or four for alfalfa and grasses.

Low-lignin alfalfa may help reduce silage corn’s yield advantage, allowing farmers to take fewer cuts of more mature alfalfa and still get good nutritional quality. But Berthiaume stresses there’s more work to do.

“My question is to the research community: how can we make hay crops, silages, alfalfa-grass mixes more appealing to larger farmers?”

Ultimately, he says, deep-rooted perennial crops provide long-term soil-building benefits, and farmers need to factor in the boost to soil health. “I’m worried if we go only to annual crops, without putting perennials in the rotation, we end up with more (plant) diseases and depleted soils.”

This article originally appeared in the 2017 issue of the Forage & Grassland Guide.

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