Finding value of alfalfa in dairy diets

Several factors play into making forages pay in dairy rations, according to Mike Brouk, who spoke Feb. 22 at the Alfalfa U event in Dodge City, Kansas.

Dairy farmers, when considering a change in their herd’s diet, often calculate the relationship of the price received for milk versus the feed cost. Brouk is an animal science professor and Extension specialist at Kansas State University, as well as the faculty coordinator nutritionist and interim manager of the K-State Dairy Teaching and Research Unit.

“One of the things that I work with the dairy farmers on is this idea of margin,” he said. “And in our business, we calculate this ratio—it’s a relationship of the price that dairy farmers are receiving for milk versus the cost feed cost.”

Feed costs are based on the prices of corn and soybeans, alfalfa hay and other feed ingredients. In the past few years, many dairy farms have been pinched with cash flow.

“We may have plenty of equity and those sorts of things, but the dairy farms are kind of cash strapped,” Brouk said. “We’ve been gaining every month and based on where we see milk price headed in the next few months anyway, according to the board, we should be improving as we go along there.”

Brouk said about 50% of the total cost of production in the dairy business is tied up in feed costs. Typically it’s split between grain and forages, and generally a little less toward forages and a little more toward the concentrates.

“Feed’s a big deal to us,” he said. “And the other thing that I wanted to impress on you folks a little bit if you’re not very familiar with how things work on the dairy farm, yeah, we get paid every month. But the price that we get paid every month wasn’t great.”

“A lot of variation generally in a year but it’s been a while since we’ve got a super high price for milk in the dairy industry,” he said. “In the past year, our low point was in February as far as milk price. Our high point was in December. So you can see that dairy farms have this cash flow thing that they have to manage in tremendous variability.”

Traditionally, corn silage was viewed as the “king” while alfalfa was the “queen,” Brouk said. The dairy industry has really expanded in those areas that can grow high quality corn silage, but it may take some water to get it done.

“So it has been important to the industry and traditionally we’ve been running about a 50-50 ratio between corn silage and alfalfa in the diet,” he said. “Now that alfalfa side might be partially haylage as well as dry hay. But that’s kind of our tradition.”

From a nutritionist standpoint, Brouk really is looking for consistency. As fast as a dairy goes through forages, test results may come back after the load is fed and often times the only analysis they have available is that milk production was down.

“So we’ve got to have effective fiber in the diet. Alfalfa is a good way to bring that in. Maybe a little better than corn silage,” he said. “I like to look at fiber digestibility because that impacts intake in high producing herds. This is critical that I need every ounce of nutrition into that cow that I can every day.”

The forages don’t necessarily have to be the cheapest, but it has to be competitive for everything going into the diet and what’s coming out of the cows. When it comes to the dairy producer, price is obviously important.

“Margin is important to the dairy producer,” Brouk said. “They’re probably looking at it on a per cow per day basis, which is unfortunate. They should be looking at it on cost per hundredweight of milk per use basis. Because I can afford to feed a little more per cow per day in terms of dollars, as long as I’m getting extra milk for cover or that type of thing.”

That’s the calculation that’s often missed, as well as the opportunity.

“Not only for the dairy farmer, but also for those trying to market alfalfa,” he said.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].

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