For a livestock producer, forage crops are an essential part of feeding their herd economically and with high-quality feed. They provide vital nutrients and important fiber to animals and allow their producers to potentially reduce feed costs, often the most significant expense for a livestock producer.
A forage crop can mean different things to different producers, including pasture, hay and silage. Each has a particular purpose and requires management to provide the highest quality feed to your herd.
High-quality pastures can provide your livestock with the nutrition they need throughout the growing season. And while pasture can be as simple as letting your herd graze what’s already available in the fields nearby, it doesn’t take much to grow top-notch pastures to meet your herd’s nutritional needs.
A combination of grasses and legumes may provide your livestock with the most significant benefits. The first step is to select the mix that fits your farm, considering your feed needs and field characteristics. Next, you’ll need to fertilize and amend the soil. A soil test can give you the most information about your field needs, but different varieties have different needs. Nitrogen gets plants up and moving but can slow down legumes, while lime provides calcium and increases the soil pH.
Your animals can manage weeds in your pasture early, but they often provide “empty” filler and compete with the other, higher-quality forages you want in your fields. Select a herbicide that works best with your forage mix if chemical weed control is necessary. ALWAYS READ AND FOLLOW HERBICIDE LABEL INSTRUCTIONS, especially related to grazing, lactation, plant back and harvest intervals.
Make sure your grazing load isn’t too heavy or too light. Overgrazing can lead to decreased plant quantity and soil health, while under grazing leads to less vigorous forage growth and the establishment of unwanted woody plants. Use pasture rotation to ensure your livestock get the nutrients they need while doing the work to keep your crops healthy.
Producing hay allows you to have dry feed for your livestock in the months when growing pasture is scarce.
Hay is stored at approximately 12%-25% moisture and has low soluble sugar content. The bales are loosely bound and full of oxygen, making it a perfect environment for mold growth and spoilage when hay is baled at higher moistures. To prevent spoilage and stop mold growth, preservative acids are added to help with longer-term storage of higher moisture hay. Hay is packaged in smaller units to be easily transported or sold.
Like pasture, selecting the suitable variety—grasses, legumes or a mix—for your hay is vital. Once you’ve chosen the right types for your goals, determine the fertilizer needs of your specific crop and fields to ensure your highest yield potential is reached.
Cutting the hay is the next step once you’ve grown a solid hay crop. In some regions, hay producers may get three to four cuttings of hay, depending on the variety grown. The subsequent cuttings are generally of higher quality, so in some instances, it may be better to make the first cutting early to encourage increased growth for second and third cuttings.
After mowing the hay, using a tedder encourages airflow and speeds curing. Tedding helps by spreading the hay out to allow for more air-hay contact, however it does require an additional pass across the field. When tedding leafier crops such as alfalfa, be cautious to avoid excessive leaf and nutrient loss. Raking turns the hay to encourage further drying and gathers the hay into a windrow for the baler.
The final step in the hay process is baling. Dry hay needs to fall to 14%-18% percent moisture before baling. Once baled, it is good to store high-quality hay inside, where it can hold onto its quality and last longer. Unwrapped hay will often lose dry matter and nutrient value.
Can You Bale Hay Before it Dries Down?
Many producers see value in baling before hay dries down fully. With a good preservative, such as Anchor™ for Hay, farmers have seen a higher nutritional value, less dry matter, and reduced spoilage. By having greater flexibility to bale high quality hay, farmers are able to overcome weather issues that are often a hay producer’s biggest hang up.
In contrast to hay, silage is a feed source stored at 55%-70% moisture. The key to limiting spoilage is to pack the silage tightly to put out oxygen, and then cover the pile to prevent oxygen from reentering to cause spoilage. Fermentation starts once the oxygen is eliminated, and creates the acids necessary to preserve the silage.
The Basics of Silage
The most crucial part of silage is the fermentation process, where beneficial bacteria convert soluble sugars to preserving acids. Acids, ammonia and other gasses play a role in the preservation process, which is complete when the pH of the silage is below four. At a pH of 4, all of the microbial life in the silage is eliminated, allowing the high moisture feed to remain stable for long periods of time.
Silage Quality Can be Affected by a Variety of Factors.
Harvesting corn silage at the correct moisture—60% to 65%—is vital. Proper harvesting helps ensure adequate carbohydrate content for fermentation. Too wet and we see harmful bacterial growth - too dry and the forage is hard to pack properly to eliminate spoilage.
Good packing is the most critical process for silage quality. A best practice is to fill a bunk with uniform 6-inch layers at an overall density of at least 14 pounds per cubic foot.
Air exclusion is what makes or breaks the silage preservation process. Silage piles can see up to 35% dry matter loss due to a large surface area. Covering a silage pile can reduce dry matter loss from 43% to 8%.
Animals can tell the difference between covered and uncovered silage as well. Holstein’s fed uncovered alfalfa silage consumed on average 12% less and gained 42% less than when fed covered silage.
The key to good fermentation is efficient production of acids which lower the pH. The faster the pH is reduced, the more nutrients are preserved. At high pH (>5), mold and yeast flourish, potentially leaving behind bacteria that can reactivate when the silo is opened. Dry matter losses from this reactivation can reach 10%-20% in just a few days.
Providing high-quality forages means greater success for your operation. The challenge is that you can't simply see, smell or feel differences in forage quality. Understanding the quality of your forage means sending it off to a lab for analysis.
There are many metrics for analyzing your forage quality. Some of the most important ones include:
Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) - TDN combines the digestible fiber, protein, lipid and carbohydrate components, focusing on digestible energy.
Relative Feed Value (RFV) - RFV combines NDF and ADF to predict overall feeding value. It is often used with legume hay, such as alfalfa.
Relative Forage Quality (RFQ) - RFQ also combines NDF and ADF to predict value, but a simulated digestion process determines it. It is often considered to be the more accurate predictor of forage value.
Crude Fiber (CF) - CF is a traditional measure of fiber in feed and represents the least digestible portion of a feedstuff, which is fermented in the rumen by microbes. It is an indicator of the energy level of a ration. CF breaks down into NDF and ADF.
Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) - NDF, often known as a predictor of intake, includes the structural components of the plant, such as the cell wall. NDF is low-calorie bulk.
Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) - ADF includes the least digestible parts of the plants, such as cellulose and lignin, and is used to measure digestibility.
Agnition is Here for Your Forage Operation
Whether it’s pasture, hay, silage, or a combination of all three, Agnition has the solutions you need to get more from your forage acres. Our line-up can help you grow and preserve more home-grown forages. We have experience growing higher quality pastures and alfalfa, as well as maintaining quality after harvest in the bale to the bunk.