Dairy farming has been improved
|The U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, in Madison, Wisconsin, opened its doors in 1981 with a clear vision to assist dairy farmers by increasing the efficiency of forage production and use. Forages are key crops, both for feeding cows and maintaining sustainable dairy farms. Forage crops provide fiber, energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals to cows and may also be harvested as hay or silage for later feeding. As a result of the center's research, use of forage crops by dairy farmers is much different today than 20 years ago. Determining forage crop quality is more accurate and rapid. The quality of alfalfa and corn silage, two primary dairy cattle forages, has increased, providing more energy for milk production. Advances in varieties and forage management have reduced the amount of land needed for forage production.|
| "Over the years, we've learned
to listen to our customers and tried to adjust some of our focus in response to
their needs," says Neal P. Martin, center director, who assumed leadership
in March 1999.
The annual $11 billion hay crop is the third most valuable crop grown in the
United States, after corn and soybeans. So forage crop improvements are
paramount to the success of dairy farms.
Over half the forage crops fed to dairy cattle today are perennial legumes and
grasses. Beyond their monetary value, grasses and legumes save soil and can be
grown on land that's unsuitable for row crops like corn or soybeans. In
addition, forages improve water infiltration and are important for managing
nutrient problems on dairy farms.
With dairy cows, what goes in affects the quantity and quality of what comes
out. That's why intensive studies of dairy cow diets have shown farmers how to
balance rations for optimum diets, and that equals better health. A diet with
too little fiber and too much concentrate (grains and dietary supplements) is
too rich. A diet with too much fiber fills a cow up without providing her
enough energy for high milk production. So, center scientists established upper
and lower limits of dietary fiber.
Researchers also studied the role of phosphorus in cow diets and its effect on
the environment. Excess phosphorus in water runoff from fields can boost algae
and aquatic plant growth in streams and lakes. Studies by center scientists
showed that feeding dairy cows 20 percent less phosphorus could save U.S. dairy
producers $100 million a year and improve water quality without sacrificing
milk production or cow health.
Nitrogen management can also be a problem on dairy farms. The protein in
alfalfa silage is broken down into nitrogen compounds, which the cow does not
use efficiently. Center scientists are investigating ways to preserve protein
during ensiling and improve nitrogen use by the dairy cow.
Farmers have several good reasons for growing alfalfa. It fixes nitrogen,
meaning there's no need to add nitrogen fertilizer, and it's the best scavenger
of excessive soil nitrate left by overfertilized row crops, thus saving money
and abating potential environmental problems.
Scientists at the center are helping dairy farmers by developing value-added
products from alfalfa and other perennial legumes. Alfalfa fiber can be used to
make lactic acid, a precursor to biodegradable plastic. Genetically modified
alfalfa has been used to produce high-value enzymes like phytase, which helps
pigs and chickens use phosphorus in their diets more efficiently.
Producing quality products from agricultural crops without depleting our land
is the cornerstone of sustainable agriculture for all farmersbig and
"Sustainable agriculture helps farmers put more money in their pockets and
less into production costs for fertilizers and pesticides," says Martin.
Yet another way the Dairy Forage Research Center's research has responded to
customer needs is development of a simple graphical method whereby farmers can
decide whether to apply bacterial inoculants before ensiling. Bacterial
inoculants are the principal silage additives in the United States. They supply
extra lactic acid bacteria to the crop to ensure fast and efficient
fermentation in the silo. The system uses weather and harvest information to
predict when an inoculant will be successful and was tested on farms in
Wisconsin and New York.
This research, coupled with lactation studies at the center, showed how much
milk-production response could be achieved with silage inoculants. The studies
provided the first logical basis for helping farmers know when bacterial
inoculants can be used profitably in making alfalfa silage. About 50 million
wet tons of alfalfa are ensiled annually in the United States, and 3050
percent of this tonnage is inoculated at a cost of about $1 per ton.By
McGraw, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Food Animal Production (#101), Rangeland, Pasture,
and Forages (#205), and Integrated Agricultural Systems (#207), three ARS
National Programs described on the World Wide Web at
Research Highlights From the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center
"Foraging Ahead" was published in the July 2001 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.