Consistency is key to selling alfalfa to dairies

With more and more larger dairies coming to the High Plains region, it’s only natural for farmers to wonder how they might be able to raise alfalfa hay for that target market.

Mike Brouk, Kansas State University professor and Extension dairy specialist, said large dairies need consistency in their feed supplies.

“The thing you can do to distinguish yourself from other growers is to have a consistent product,” Brouk said. “They don’t have time to test every bale before they feed it. I guarantee that dairy manager looks at the pounds of milk shipped off the farm each day.” Inconsistent feed quality, he added, can result in 4 to 5 pounds of milk reduction per cow, and that’s dollars right out of the dairy’s pocket.

Brouk spoke at the 2020 Alfalfa U in Dodge City, Kansas, Feb. 20. Farmers packed his breakout session to learn how they might manage their alfalfa production, storage and marketing to meet the needs of the growing dairy market.

Dairy farmers have three considerations: Price, quality, and consistency, Brouk said.

The dairy farm will spend 55% to 56% of its total operations expenditures on feed, Brouk said. That’s why price leads the list. Performance in the milking parlor is highly related to the feedstuffs the dairy cow consumes. Balancing the cost of feed with pounds of milk produced and the price of milk the farmer receives is a daily decision. Cash flow on dairies has been tight and is even tighter today. But skimping on feedstocks is not a way to cut expenses for the long-term success of the herd.

Feeding dairy cattle is a continuum, Brouk said. “You won’t feed that dairy cow for 180 days and then ship her,” he said. Unlike feeding beef cattle in a feedlot, dairy cattle have to have the right type of feed for each stage of her lactation.

“When we screw that up on a dairy, we screw up several years of production,” Brouk said. “What we feed now impacts if we get another lactation, if she gets bred back quickly and milking again.” The three weeks pre- and post-calving are the most critical phases of a dairy cow’s cycle, and she needs just the right feed that will get her ready to go back into lactation.

Brouk said at each stage of a dairy cow’s production cycle, from early lactation to the next lactation, her dry matter intake changes. Both the quality of hay and quantity of hay that she consumes can affect not just how much milk she’ll produce, but also the interval between getting bred back and returning to lactation. Unlike a beef cow, the dairy cow stays on a more rigid breeding schedule.

“If you look at the production cycle of the dairy cow, you’ll see milk production peaks right before her dry matter intake usage,” he explained. It’s a spot where the cow can’t eat enough calories to replace what she’s putting out in energy. So, she’ll start to take off body condition, and that can slow her return to estrus, and that means she is slower to breed back.

“Every pound of dry matter intake is equal to 3 pounds of milk production,” Brouk said. “If you can drive up dry matter intake up by one pound, that milk production goes up.” Cows are very sensitive to changes in forage quality, he added.

“If we get 10 more pounds of milk at 18 cents per pound, that’s $1.80 per cow,” Brouk said. “If you feed 10 pounds of alfalfa hay at the high end and pay $80 premium for that higher quality, that’s a little over 80 cents per cow per day. That still leaves $1 per cow per day on the table.” If all else is going right on the farm and the cows can take advantage of that higher quality hay, and produce more milk, that should be money on the table for the dairy.

And that’s where the alfalfa grower and his haying crews come into the picture.

It’s important for alfalfa growers to control how they put up hay, from cutting at the right growth stage and in the right interval, to raking and baling at the right time to keep their customers, and their cows happy and producing. It’s key to know the nutritional value and the quality of the hay you’re storing, and making sure that each shipment is consistent so that the dairy’s nutritionist gets the right product they’re paying for. That’s part of the relationship building an alfalfa grower should have with the dairy if they’re not going through a broker.

By paying attention to the growth stage of alfalfa at cutting, ensuring that there’s more nutritional bang in every bite, and communicating with the dairyman, the savvy alfalfa farmer can set his product apart from others on the market and capture the dairy premium for that consistent quality.

Alfalfa U was sponsored by Alforex Seeds, John Deere and High Plains Journal. To see the slides from this year’s presenters, visit

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].

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