At a glance: With decreasing milk profitability and slowly rising alfalfa costs, producers often look to cheaper feedstuffs; but alfalfa remains one of the most complete feeds available for milk production.
If you are a dairy producer, you don’t need me to tell you that the industry has been in a bear market for at least the past 18 to 24 months. And as the price of alfalfa hay slowly rises, producers are rethinking the amount of alfalfa they include in their dairy rations. As a result, a number of dairy producers, particularly in the western U.S., are using cheaper feed components to meet protein and fiber requirements.
That said, most dairies recognize that alfalfa represents a critical part of their rations, functioning as an effective and highly digestible source of fiber as well as a source of high protein. So even though dairies recognize the tremendous benefit their cows receive from alfalfa, they also realize there are certain characteristics that affect its ability to be cost-effective.
What’s happening in the industry
No matter what the market, producers are always seeking ways to widen margins. Replacing alfalfa with a less expensive option such as corn silage, winter annual silage or distillers grains is growing in popularity. Most years, the forage industry has an adequate supply of alfalfa, but there is almost always a deficit of high-quality alfalfa.
“Dairy economics are always challenging; however, the economic environment that dairies are facing today is certainly more difficult than in previous years,” says Phil Bollman, alfalfa support manager, Forage Genetics International. “There is a trend, particularly with larger dairies, to feed as much forage as possible. The economics of feeding more high-quality forage have been favorable. In many cases, this has resulted in more corn silage fed in dairy rations.”
Land availability and access to substitute byproducts play a role in how much forage, specifically alfalfa, is included in rations. Some of that has to do with how much land the dairy has to grow forages and land base requirements for manure. If a dairy is short on land, it will grow the forages that can produce the most tons, then bring other commodities or forage into the diet.
Geography also plays a role in whether alfalfa is included in feed rations. “In California, for example, dairy producers tend to feed less forage than producers in the Midwest, because they can access a number of less expensive byproducts and are typically short on owned farm land,” says Bollman. “In the Midwest, producers tend to have more acres per farm and are inclined to feed more forage.”
Of course, there are differences between farms, Bollman adds, and this is where a good nutritionist can help dairy producers get the most from their forage strategies. “Working with a good nutritionist is an important part in helping dairy producers determine optimal amounts of various feed components,” he says.
Feeding what can be grown
Bollman adds that a trend he’s seeing is that more dairies are diving deeper into agronomy. “They’re trying to grow as much of their own feed, including alfalfa, as they can to have greater control over things such as quality and cost, versus purchasing everything,” he says. “A lot depends on land availability and other factors, but this is something I’ve noticed. Every producer is continually evaluating their practices and trying to improve.”
The quality question
Forage quality is extremely important in the dairy diet, and alfalfa plays a significant role. According to Bollman, high-quality forage gives dairy producers the potential to:
- Incur lower costs, because less supplementation is needed
- Feed more forage, because the higher the forage quality, the more of it the animal can eat
- Give cows an optimal diet for optimal performance
“Having high-quality alfalfa allows you to do one or two of these things or all of the above,” Bollman says. “In today’s market, saving money is a good thing. Typically, producing more milk is a good thing. Depending on the diet and the individual operation, the combination might be different.”
How does alfalfa fit?
The bottom line is, alfalfa makes milk. It’s about as close to a complete feed as we have in a dairy ration. If price wasn’t a factor, most dairy producers would feed alfalfa as part of the ration. However, there is something that I often hear about growing alfalfa; that is, corn systems are easy while alfalfa systems are difficult. A way to change that is by adopting systems that make growing alfalfa easier, more economical and less time-consuming. If a busy producer can choose between growing corn silage and growing alfalfa, that producer will probably choose corn silage — not only from a time-saving perspective but also in terms of ease of crop management.
For example, new alfalfa trait technology can give growers the flexibility to produce high-quality forage or delay harvest to maximize yield potential, depending on weather or operational needs. In turn, this may allow them to remove a cutting from their schedule, potentially saving them time and money by reducing trips across the field. These types of technologies will help spur the industry to increase alfalfa in dairy rations while making management easier for forage growers and dairy producers.
Of course, producers and their nutritionists will choose what feed components make the most sense for a particular operation based on economics and the quality of milk sought. However, Bollman believes alfalfa will continue to be included as a part of the diet for most cows. “The quantity used might go up or down, but I see alfalfa as a staple in most dairy diets as it has been for years,” he says.
What the future might hold
The industry is working to create alfalfa varieties that yield more, offer higher disease resistance, pest resistance and higher forage quality overall. “We’re always trying to determine what we can do to ensure alfalfa plants fit the needs of today’s market, but even more so the needs of the market five, 10 or 15 years down the road,” Bollman says.
Right now, the dairy industry is all about efficiency, and forage producers are continually looking at their rations, their diets and their production practices to grow what their cows need. It’s not unusual for them to substitute commodities, proteins or starch sources if that means a better buy. They’re continually evaluating and seeking better options, with economics driving their decision-making.
“As farmers move forward in feeding the world, the question is: How do we produce more calories per acre or more digestible fiber per acre as economically as possible?” Bollman says. “Growing corn isn’t all that profitable right now. That will change as the market changes, but today is a pretty good time to be growing alfalfa relative to other crops.”
Creativity and innovation will be important in the coming years to help the forage industry thrive and give dairy producers the option to increase high-quality forage in their dairy rations while remaining within their feed budgets.