Improving forage quality to increase milk or beef production

by Sanne Kure-Jensen
Better soils lead to better forage, improved animal health, higher milk quality and larger milk yield. “Soil fertility is the foundation to Integrated Livestock Cropping System [and] works to enhance the flow of nutrients within the biological system,” said Cynthia A. Daley, Ph.D., Organic Dairy Program Professor at California State University. Her goal is to improve pasture soil structure and biology. Daley’s research showed a clear economic benefit to amending soils for increased quality and quantity of milk in her dairy herd. She led a webinar hosted by eOrganic in late June. The webinar is posted at
Test soils and forage quality
Daley recommended farmers test pasture soils as the first step in developing and implementing an amendment and remediation program. Most state universities have soil labs. Soil tests will offer a baseline and recommendations. Forage quality reports will give fiber levels as well as digestibility, energy and mineral values.
Soil and pasture
For ideal pasture quality and forage yield, soils need a balance of macronutrients (Calcium, Phosphorus and Potassium) and micronutrients (Boron, Magnesium and Sulfur).
Ideal soil structure allows air, water and roots to penetrate into soils. Biological activity includes microbes, fungi, worms and insects. Plant roots take in nutrients and water while delivering energy/sugars and carbohydrates made through photosynthesis. Organic matter breaks down into humus, a stable source of slow release nutrients, which helps improve water retention.
Soil biology
There are many benefits to diverse soil biology:
Nutrient cycling
Nutrient retention
Improved soil structure
Drought resistance – Improved water holding capacity
Disease suppression
Degrading or tying up pollutants
Balanced micro and macro soil nutrients support ideal plant health, vigor and nutrition. Daley urged farmers “find a good Soils Coach.” She recommended a book called “Building soils for better crops – sustainable soil management” by Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es. This book is available free at Daley also recommended “The Ideal Soil: A Handbook for the New Agriculture” by Michael Astera. This book is widely available online or at major bookstores.
Optimal soils
Daley recommended farm managers seek ideal soil Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) by ensuring optimal levels of Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium and Hydrogen. Sandy soils typically have low CEC. High CEC is more common in soils with high organic matter and/or clay contents. High CEC soils will retain micronutrients (Sulfur, Boron and Molybdenum) better than low CEC soils. It will take more time and inputs to correct high CEC soils.
Ideal crop nutrition comes from soils with this balance: Calcium 75 percent, Magnesium 15 percent, Potassium 3.5 percent, Sodium 1 percent and Hydrogen 0 percent at a pH or 7.0. When Calcium levels are high relative to Magnesium, soils are ‘loose.’ With more Magnesium, soils are ‘tight.’ Be cautious with leachability of some minerals in sandy or low CEC soils.
Calcium — essential for uptake of many other nutrients, breaks up dense clay soils, improves air and water movement in soils, improves forage pectin levels, helps mobilize other minerals and help plants build greater root mass
Boron — helps translocate sugars, aids calcium absorption, root elongation and leaches easily in low CEC soils.
Sulfur — helps protein production, lignin digestibility and plant growth.
Worms and dung beetles
Earthworms feast on microbes. Their tunnels help water and air to move through soils. Phosphorus is seven times more available and plant usable in worm castings. Traditional fertilizers and animal fly treatments often kill dung beetles. Organic soil treatments allow the return of dung beetles. Their speedy processing and burial of cow plops reduces the fly and maggot populations improving cattle health.
Daley’s research
Daley amended pasture soils per soil test recommendations each spring. Pastured were grazed intensively. Fences were moved every 12 hours. She prefers her animals graze quickly to avoid selective weeds. Forage species did not change during the year nor did the amended areas visually differ from the unamended areas.
Daley said, “It takes time to reverse five decades of traditional management.” The amended areas showed improved nutrient content. Forage samples were tested in spring, summer and late summer.
Daley’s fields have clay loam soils with high Magnesium, which need aeration. After amending and testing for several years, amended soils show rising Calcium levels and dropping Magnesium levels. All fields were overseeded each fall with a forage blend including white clover. Perennial rye comes back each fall when temperatures begin to fall.
Summer temperatures in Daley’s region require pasture irrigation each summer. Daley’s animals receive a mineral supplement on their parlor feed. Over time, farmers can reduce supplement feeding as forage quality continues to improve.
Seasonal changes
Nutritional levels and fiber digestibility shift as cool season grasses go dormant. Warm season grasses are typically less digestible. Forage during hot summers may need supplementing for ideal animal nutrition.
Daley reminded growers that the best way to grow and finish animals is to increase the energy and fiber content of grass and forage.
Forage is the cheapest feed. The animals collect it themselves reducing farmers’ labor and transportation costs of hay.
Improved soil mineral balance led to increased plant nutrition. This created forage with more vitamins and antioxidants, which improved animal health, milk quality and antioxidant levels. The amended soils generated about $200 more per dairy animal per season. Amendments cost slightly over $150 per animal. The amended fields offered extra forage yields saving $70 per animal in comparable feed (replacement hay).
Overall, the soil amendments were well worth their cost in materials and labor with returns well over $100 per animal.
Similar forage improvements will benefit the health and nutrition of beef cattle.
Daley shared her wish that milk from enhanced, balanced fields could be marketed as having improved nutrition. Even though that is unlikely in her region, soil improvements were more than economically justified. Her input expenses returned significant increased milk production.
Drought resistance
Balanced soils often have higher organic matter levels and improved water holding capacity. Good soil biology leads to good aeration and deeper plant roots. These factors help protect pastures from extended drought conditions.

4-H kids and cows compete at Lamoille County Dairy Show

CN-RP-1-4-H kids and cows 1The focus of the day was on fun as 4-H’ers from four counties vied for ribbons and championships at the 4-H/Open Peewee Youth Dairy Show, July 27, at the annual Lamoille County Field Days in Johnson.
University of Vermont (UVM) Extension 4-H and the Green Mountain Moovers 4-H Club of Morrisville sponsored the event, which attracted participants from Caledonia, Franklin, Lamoille and Orleans Counties. Lora Smith-Goss of North Haverhill, NH, who has judged open and 4-H shows for 30 years, was the judge for both the fitting and showmanship and conformation classes.
The event included a peewee division for 4-H Cloverbuds, ages five to seven, to introduce them to the show ring and give them experience showing a dairy animal in competition. Entrants in this division received participation ribbons but were not ranked. They included Bo and Sam Callan, Enosburg Falls; and Gabriel, Haley, Morgan and Natalie Michaud, all of East Hardwick.
The show got underway with the fitting and showmanship classes where the 4-H’ers were judged on their poise as well as presentation and handling of their animal. For the conformation classes, arranged by age and breed of animal, judges looked at the physical structure, condition and appearance of the animal. [Read more…]

Can foliar diseases in forage grasses cause economic losses for livestock producers?

CN-MR-5-Can foliar disease 1by Daniel Hudson, UVM Extension Agronomist
Most garden enthusiasts are familiar with fungal diseases in fruit and vegetable crops. These diseases can induce a range of experiences from mild gardener irritation to complete crop loss. Late blight in tomatoes, powdery mildew in squash, leaf spot, phytophthora and pythium, just to name a few. The most frustrating diseases are those that spoil the quality of the product just before it is ready to harvest! The insidious fact about most plant pathogens is that their spores are everywhere. Given the right conditions, they can devastate a crop. While some species and varieties of plants have varying degrees of resistance to certain pathogens, no plant is entirely immune.
Fungal infection of fruit and vegetables can render a crop completely unmarketable, a fact that looms large in the minds of producers. In field crops and forages, however, fungal pathogens often do not prevent harvest or marketing, but often compromise yield and quality in ways that are not immediately evident. Until recently I had the impression that foliar disease on forages was not a ranking concern among livestock farmers or hay producers. This is why I was exceedingly surprised when I recently heard a farmer state that mid-summer grass diseases (foliar) are the most significant agronomic problem on his farm! [Read more…]

Sterling College hosts Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food and Your Future

CN-MR-2-Sterling College hosts 1by Bethany M. Dunbar
CRAFTSBURY COMMON, VT — Toby Marx-Dunn, a high school student from Jericho, was listening to National Public Radio one day, and it got him thinking about the food he eats. He decided he wanted to know more and get better, healthier food. This impulse led him to sign up for a brand new summer Governor’s Institute of Vermont — one called, Farms, Food and Your Future.
The impulse led him to a spot standing behind the back ends of a pair of large, patient work horses in a farm field at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common on July 31.
Marx-Dunn seems to be not alone in his impulse, judging by admissions numbers at Sterling. Last year the college — which teaches sustainable agriculture and food-related topics — had about 90 students. This fall the doors will open to a full class of 110. Tim Patterson, director of admission and financial aid, said the dorms are full. [Read more…]

What young farmers are taking on

CM-MR-3-What young farmers 1by Steve Wagner
Recently Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and First Lady Susan Corbett hosted a breakfast for officers and advisors of the FFA and 4-H at the Governor’s Mansion. Though overcast outside, a homey yet sumptuous meal was served indoors at a long table on highly polished hardwood floors and lit in chandeliered splendor. After breakfast, Governor Corbett spoke to Country Folks. The question was: with all the serious concerns that farmers are facing today — drought, floods, tornadoes, overly ambitious federal regulation, tax burdens, nutrient management issues, and so on — what is it that makes these young people want to lead with their chins when deciding to pursue farming? Corbett answered by saying that it is in 4-H’ers and FFA members to “have a profession, have an ability to take care of themselves, and have a challenge of growing something, whether it’s an animal or livestock or flowers, trees, vegetables, whatever. But I think it’s also an independence issue. In many cases these young people come from families that do this, so it is continuing a culture that is the number one industry in Pennsylvania. People forget that. Small businesses are the majority of businesses. [Read more…]