Balancing Hay Quality and Quantity

Because they grow most of their own forages, this Washington state dairy owner strives for a balance between tons and nutrition.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By David Bagley

As a co-owner in a 2,900-cow dairy, Jason Sheehan has to look at feed quality from two different angles: as a producer and as a consumer for the milking herd. Located in Sunnyside, Washington, which is the heart of the Yakima Valley, Sheehan shares ownership of J & K Dairy with his wife, Karen, and his in-laws, Tony and Brenda Veiga. In addition to overseeing a schedule that calls for milking cows three times a day, the two families and their employees also manage 1,000 acres of irrigated farmland rotated between alfalfa and corn that is double-cropped to triticale.

“Being a dairy farmer, one of the most important things about the feed is the quality,” say Sheehan. “So, in everything we do, we’re driving toward harvesting, storing and feeding quality feed to our dairy herd.”

That goes for cows in the milking herd all the way down to the heifers, he says, explaining that the dairy always looks at nutrition and digestibility, even if it means lower tonnage. “On the other hand, we’re limited on the acres, so we’re trying to get as much yield per acre as we can so we can grow as much of our own feed as possible.”

“Harvest scheduling, or days until or between harvests, is probably the most powerful agronomic practice affecting both yield and quality,” says Dan Putnam, statewide alfalfa and forage Extension specialist at the University of California, Davis. “As the crop grows, yields increase and quality decreases,” he says.

“Similar changes in digestibility have been observed related to harvest schedule. This is termed the ‘yield-quality’ trade-off. Rarely, if ever, can growers maximize both yield and quality; they must make a compromise which produces ‘high-enough’ quality at ‘high-enough’ yields.”

Consequently, Sheehan says his operation strives for a balance. In the quest for higher quality, they tend to harvest the first cutting earlier than most. That also allows them to cut alfalfa six times versus the area average of four or five cuttings. As a result, they’re cutting alfalfa about every 28 days, which has been their goal.

Putnam notes that a study conducted for more than three years with 18 alfalfa varieties at Davis, California, showed that yields increased from about 9.5 to 11.5 tons per acre when producers went from an “early” cutting schedule (about 24 to 25 days) to a “late” cutting schedule (about 35 days). However, the short cutting schedule produced a much higher percentage (82%) of higher-quality “premium” and “supreme” classed hay compared with the longer cutting schedules (39% for the late schedule, 50% for the mid schedule).

Then again, adds Putnam, “the short cutting schedule also reduced stand vigor and stand life over three years of study, which is a major penalty for early cutting schedules. This is why agronomists often recommend ‘staggering’ short cutting schedules followed by longer schedules to allow recovery of the stand for extending stand life.”

Higher Digestibility, More Milk. Sheehan explains that the dairy’s typical alfalfa harvesting program involves cutting the crop with a Hesston by Massey Ferguson WR9870 windrower and laying it into a wide swath that allows it to dry quickly. Ideally, the alfalfa can then be picked up the same day with a forage harvester and stored as haylage. Harvesting the crop as haylage also shortens the harvest schedule versus putting it up in bales. Fewer trips over the field are also important to reducing traffic damage to the crop.

“For alfalfa, the longer it lays on the ground, the more sugar the plants lose; so, our target for dry matter, which determines when we start chopping, is 35% or higher,” Sheehan says. “We really aim for the sweet spot around 40% dry matter. It’s a balance between being too dry, which leads to leaf loss, versus too wet, which can result in the crop not fermenting properly when you put it in the pile.

“We’ve really simplified our ration,” he adds, noting that he regularly meets with his herd manager, nutritionists and veterinarian. “Basically, we’re feeding alfalfa haylage, corn silage, triticale silage. Then, on the grain side, we’re feeding cottonseed, canola meal, dry distillers grain, a mineral mix, and a few other additives and bypassed fat … things like that.

“Generally for us, higher-quality forage will lower our feed costs and raise our milk production,” Sheehan continues, noting their daily milk production already averages 89 pounds per cow, per day. “We’re after digestibility as well as protein.

“The old measures were protein, ADF [acid detergent fiber] and NDF [neutral detergent fiber]. Now, we’re looking for NDF digestibility and relative feed quality, as well as relative feed value. So, we’re shifting a lot more to digestibility because the higher the digestibility of the forage, the more forage we can feed, and the more milk the cows can produce.”