Harvesting Winter Forage (Not Cover Crops)Tom Kilcer and I first met at a Cooperative Extension conference in autumn 1977. At that time, I was winding up the last few months of my 64-month career as a dairy/field crops Extension agent in Otsego County and he was just beginning what would blossom into a 22-year profession as a field crops Extension agent in Columbia County. Over the intervening years I would see him occasionally as a speaker at some conference or seminar I was attending. My most prominent comparatively recent contact with Kilcer came during Drought 2012. I was interviewing one of the managers of a Midwestern seed company. Forty of the “lower 48” states were experiencing exceptional to extreme drought in 2012.

Seedcorn production was generally severely impaired by scarce precipitation. I asked this seedsman how badly the drought hurt their operation. He said, “Very little – our crop advisor Tom Kilcer makes sure we have a good rotation with our seedcorn production, nothing monocultural.” They gave me Kilcer’s contact information; then I called him. He remembered me and invited me to visit his crop demonstration plots near Valatie. Working with Cornell University, Kilcer still had quite a bit of freedom choreographing which varieties and practices got demonstrated – all with sound statistical methodology. He showed me how most of his corn varieties dried up and died, but how the sorghums, sudangrasses, their hybrids and millets continued producing, unfazed, as if to say “What drought?” I visited Kilcer at Valatie around July 20, 2012. He told me that in the previous six weeks the research farm had only received a half-inch of rainfall.

I noticed serious cracks in soil next to shriveled corn and asked him what the organic matters (OMs) were; they ran between 2.5% and 2.9%. I asked why so low? He said that the Cornell weed science professor had been running weed control experiments and didn’t worry about low OMs. I wanted to look at his winter grains, asking him, “Can you show me your cover crops?” He replied, “First of all, I don’t call them cover crops – they’re winter forages. Cover crops convey the idea that they’re avoiding something bad, like soil loss – which, in fact, they are doing; winter forage promotes the idea that all the land can do something productive year-round.” Kilcer has been perfecting the skills of winter forage management in the decade since I first got re-acquainted with him. During that time, I have visited Kilcer and his Valatie research three times. The winter forages in 2012 consisted of rye, triticale and wheat. Having gotten off to a good start shortly after the previous Labor Day, the winter forages were well-established by the time drought struck.

Fast forward to Kilcer’s April 2022 online newsletter (Crop Soil News), with subheading “Managing Through Challenging Time.” Quoting Kilcer: “This is a difficult newsletter to write with so many factors affecting the farm in play. It is even more difficult with your farm business on the line. We have been through both low and high milk prices and high grain prices times before. Farms survived then and will now, but not without some change. An old farmer said: ‘Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.’ If you are not there, one of the key steps is to maximize the milk produced by the least expensive feeds. In short, you want more money for your efforts, which is not the same as more milk.”

He explained that, motivated by the need to make more money, not just more milk, this is doubly critical for farms whose handlers have told them there is a limit on what they will buy. Thus, some dairymen are reducing the number of cows to meet milk limits. Higher forage increases milk components, so you get paid more for milk. This is old hat for farmers in Canada. (The word “quota” comes to mind.) For the majority of U.S. and Canadian dairy farms, the least expensive source of energy and protein are the forages they grow. Kilcer shows that increasing the forage level in the diet can increase the amount of forage fed, while displacing much, if not most, of the concentrate. Moderately low forage quality and feeding level vs. a moderately high quality and feeding level can mean a 45% difference in the amount of forage fed. Feeding more of your own forages means nutrients you don’t have to import. Increasing forage is done one small step at a time. At each step the ration must be rebalanced. It can be done while producing the same or more milk without losing body condition. Gentle changes are mandatory. Total mixed ration makes it easier to sneak changes past the cows.

What is high forage? Early in his Extension career, Kilcer’s answer would have been 65% forage in the diet. But now there are numerous farms where 70% forage is the standard and some farms surpass that. This is done without giving up milk or sacrificing body condition. Feeding a cow like a cow (forage) is an old idea that’s critical today. You need quality forage, and plenty of it. Quoting Kilcer: “You will not get there overnight but continually make small changes increasing the forage. Our work in the 1990s, as documented by the Cornell Dairy Farm Business summary and by Dr. Larry Chase of Cornell, who found greater components – more money for the milk you can sell, improved herd health – the vet bill dropped faster than grain bill, less metabolic disorders and acidosis, a 30% increase in income over feed costs and as a result a decrease in open accounts.”

Kilcer’s motto on each monthly newsletter pretty well sums it up: “It is the crops that feed the cows that make the milk which creates the money.”