Winter Annual Forage for Dairy Cattle

Producer’s Story: Ted Miller



"We typically see a 10% increase in milk production and around a 10% decrease in daily grain intake when we are utilizing winter annuals in the ration thus increasing our milk income over feed cost margin rather nicely." – Ted Miller

My wife Melissa and I, along with our four children, own and operate Delta Dairy LLC which is a 600-cow seasonal grass-based dairy, located near Baskin, in northeast Louisiana. Having the entire herd calving in the fall of the year, we create a huge demand for both protein and energy from our forages through the fall and winter months. The challenge then becomes where to source this protein and energy from at a time when our warm season forages are going into dormancy and have little to offer nutritionally for a lactating dairy cow. This is precisely where we have found winter annual forages to shine.


Our location is slightly too far south to grow a cool season perennial such as fescue, so our only option is to plant an annual grass that establishes quickly and provides both the quantity and quality we need to adequately supplement a dairy ration. Through a lot of trial and error we’ve settled on oats, ryegrass, and a couple different varieties of clover. Our target is to plant around one acre of cool season annuals for each milk cow in the herd.


Preparation begins for planting in August while the entire herd is dry and not producing milk. Ryegrass along with a little red and white clover are flown on over the summer cover of Bermuda grass and warm season annuals at a rate of 25 lbs/acre. Following this we use high density mob grazing with dry cows to remove the residual summer forage and trample the ryegrass seed to the ground. After the cover has been adequately removed, we use a Great Plains no-till drill to plant 100 lbs of oats/acre. The drill has been modified with two ¾” no-till counters per row. Our goal is to achieve ¾” of loose soil on each side of the row and seed placement at around ½” deep with an inch of loose soil below the seed as well. By utilizing vertical tillage in this way, we can achieve loose soil conditions around the oats seed stimulating rapid germination without the need to disc the field which would compromise the durability of a sod to support cattle during wet winter conditions. Along with that, we can avoid the loss of valuable soil organic matter which we would incur through the use of full tillage. It is critical that this is planted early enough to take advantage of the warm fall weather in October and November to maximize growth before the onset of winter. Our goal is to begin planting around September 20 and be finished by October 15. However, planting this early brings with it an increased risk of armyworm infestation so careful scouting is critical, especially in October. We try to watch our new plantings very carefully and eradicate any armyworm outbreaks as soon as we see them. Along with pest control, fertility is also a key to maximizing fall production of winter annuals. Shortly following germination, we try to get 50 units of nitrogen on all of our planted acres. This is usually accomplished with a single application of urea/ammonium sulfate on the dryland acres. We plant around 40% of our winter annuals under irrigation and on these acres, we do a split application of 30-00-02 liquid nitrogen injected through the irrigation water. This method of ‘fertigating' along with the ability to keep adequate soil moisture present through conventional irrigation during the sometimes dry fall months, greatly enhances our production potential on these acres over the dryland acres.


With proper management, we can plan on getting upwards of 2 tons of dry matter production per acre on our winter annuals from November through April. Not only is the increased tonnage welcome, but the quality of this feed far exceeds even our best procured hay and baleage. We typically see protein levels over 20%, TDN's in the high 60’a and RFQ ratings in the 150 range. We’ve found with this level of quality, we only need about 25% of the total forage ration to be comprised of winter annuals. The rest is balanced with medium to high quality Bermuda grass baleage. By restricting access to the grazed winter forage, we can stretch the availability of it through the entire winter. This is accomplished by grazing the milk cows on it every other day, balancing it with unrolled baleage at night and the off days.


We typically see a 10% increase in milk production and around a 10% decrease in daily grain intake when we are utilizing winter annuals in the ration thus increasing our milk income over feed cost margin rather nicely. Our cost of production for all inputs on the winter annuals usually runs around $.04/lb on a dry matter basis, making it the highest quality feed we have access to at an extremely reasonable price. Capturing this cost of production margin utilizing homegrown solar energy is a critical component for maintaining profitability through fluctuating milk and feed price cycles.


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