PRODUCERS who would like to use the cover crops they planted last fall as supplemental feed for their livestock may want to harvest these crops quickly before the plants get too mature and their feed quality declines, according to a forage expert from The Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural & Environmental Sciences.
Rory Lewandowski, agriculture and natural resources educator for Ohio State University Extension, said although cover crops are typically planted to control erosion and improve soil structure and health, they can also be a good option as supplemental forage for livestock.
"There are a number of dairy farmers who take a cutting off of cover crops that are planted in the fall — like cereal rye and winter wheat — harvest it, use it as a wet forage and then plant corn for silage," Lewandowski said. "Warm-season cover crops, including clovers, sudangrass, sorghum-sudangrass hybrids or spring-planted radishes, used to promote soil health, can also be grazed by livestock or mechanically harvested and used as stored forage."
However, while cover crops such as cereal rye, triticale and winter wheat can also be used as supplemental forage for livestock, they need to be harvested in a timely fashion for optimal use, he said.
"Cereal rye quality declines the most rapidly as the plant enters the reproductive growth stage, and it advances most rapidly from vegetative to reproductive growth compared to the other two forages," Lewandowski said. "So, producers should harvest these crops at the boot to very early head stage of maturity."
Producers should harvest these crops as silage or as wrapped forage as the best option for supplemental feed because there typically aren't many good drying days during spring in the region, he said.
"Also, producers who choose to graze cattle on these cover crops should make sure they have enough animals to graze across the field before the crops get too mature and lose quality," Lewandowski said. "It is also important to give livestock no more than one or two days' worth of grazing at a time before moving the fence to provide access to another portion of the crops when using strip grazing."
Producers need to be aware that grazing on spring growth of winter wheat or cereal rye can increase the potential for grass tetany in livestock, particularly in cows still nursing calves fewer than four months old, he said.
"Grass tetany is a potentially fatal nutritional disorder in livestock caused by low blood magnesium levels," Lewandowski explained. "Grass tetany can be prevented by feeding animals that graze in lush, rapidly growing grass pastures a high-magnesium mineral mix starting at least a week or two before spring grazing and continuing throughout the spring grazing period."
A free-choice, high-magnesium mix should contain 12-15% magnesium from magnesium oxide and can be mixed with a grain or flavoring agent such as molasses to encourage cattle to eat it, he said. The mixture should be fed to cattle daily in 4 oz. portions throughout late spring until forages are more mature and temperatures are warmer.
Tetany is most likely to be seen in early spring grazing as cool-season grasses and small grains such as wheat and rye are most often low in magnesium and calcium and high in potassium, Lewandowski said.
Signs of grass tetany in cattle include muscle twitching in the flank, lack of muscle coordination, grazing away from the herd, irritability, wide eyes, staring, staggering, collapsing, thrashing and coma. It can quickly result in death.
Dairy revitalization study
In 1990, Missouri farms had 226,000 milk cows, but by 2014, the number had fallen to 90,000 cows. From 2000 to 2014, the number of dairies fell 45.5% to 1,248 dairy farms.
After decades of declines in dairy production and the number of cows, farms and dairy farmers, however, University of Missouri (MU) Extension economist Joe Horner said things are changing, and the state is primed for dairy revitalization.
"Missouri has an advantage for milk production and an abundance of dairy infrastructure," Horner said.
In fact, he said gains in Missouri milk production have outpaced the national rate since 2013. However, Missouri farmers just match consumer demand for fluid milk.
The MU dairy team recently released results of a new study that examined the state's industry and offered producer and stakeholder ideas to reverse the decline.
The Missouri Agricultural & Small Business Development Authority provided funding for the study, which assessed current dairy and economic impacts, gave historical context, reported needs and looked at economic potential. Additionally, the study compared Missouri with other dairy states.
The "Missouri Dairy Industry Revitalization Study" explored how to sustain existing producers, grow the industry from within and attract new producers.
"There are many opportunities," said Horner, who led the team. "To start revitalization, we need to be all on the same page."
Missouri manufacturers of cheese, ice cream, yogurt and other milk products employ more than 5,000 workers as well as pay nearly $275 million in wages annually, according to the study.
"Making more milk would keep jobs in Missouri," Horner said. "It starts on the farm. Local cows provide fresher milk with lower hauling costs."
Of Missouri farm products, milk is the one that creates an abundance of off-farm jobs, including in processing, distribution, milk tankers, milking equipment and refrigeration dealers, feed suppliers and even record-keepers, he explained.
Although there are lots of dairy assets and advantages in Missouri, on the downside, a demographic shift is nearing as many lifelong dairy farmers approach retirement age, Horner said, adding that for revitalization, Missouri will need more young producers.
Most dairy farms are in southern Missouri. However, 98 of the 114 counties in the state have local dairy income.
"The economic impact of keeping dairy milkers and manufacturers in Missouri will be significant," he said.
Missouri has become a national leader in grass-based seasonal dairies, where cows harvest their own feed, Horner said, adding that lower input costs plus more time off appeal to new producers.
Many existing conventional dairy farms, however, continue to expand.
While land prices seem high to Missouri farmers, out-of-state and even out-of-country farmers consider these land values low.
Low-cost forages, whether corn silage or pasture grass, provide an economic edge, Horner said. Additionally, low-cost corn and soybean byproducts can be found across the state.
Prolonged drought in California and the Southwest leaves cows in need of new homes, and Missouri has water and a favorable climate for dairying, Horner said. "There are a lot of cows on the move."
Historically, dairy farming has given many young farmers a start, since the biweekly milk check often helps sustain beginners, he said.
Recognizing the potential, the Missouri General Assembly recently passed — and the governor signed — the Missouri Dairy Revitalization Act of 2015, which included scholarships to students interested in dairying and returning to the business.
"Missouri dairy farm and dairy product plants give big-dollar benefits to Missouri," the report notes. "In 2013, dairy farms generated $272.2 million in milk cash receipts. Missouri dairy farms provided a value-added impact of $131 million to Missouri's gross domestic product."
Research center transition
The small, experimental, pasture-based dairy at the MU College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources' Southwest Research Center has accomplished all of its goals as a demonstration dairy.
To further enhance education in the region, the center will now focus on dairy forage research, which will involve young heifers that are not in the dairy production cycle. To help fund the new focus, the center will sell its dairy cattle herd.
"We are transitioning from milking cows at the southwest center to research relevant to dairy producers going into the future. The southwest center has dairy heifers that will continue to be developed at this location," said David Cope, superintendent of the center.
"In addition, southwest Missouri has two MU Extension dairy specialists who continue to provide outreach support to producers. There will continue to be a need for forage research as we work to find varieties that do well for dairy and beef cattle in southwest Missouri," Cope added.
When the project began in 1999 with a 10-year research plan, the purpose was to establish a demonstration dairy showing the economic viability of a seasonal, intensive grazing dairy with 60-80 cows in southwestern Missouri.
From 2005 to 2014, growth of new grazing dairies created $100 million in new investment, generated $40 million in annual milk sales and added 1,110 jobs in Missouri, according to MU Extension.
Grasslands Consultants chief executive officer Gareth van der Heyden acknowledged the support of the Southwest Research Center in establishing its 7,000-cow, pasture-based dairy operation, which contributes an estimated $150 million to the state's economy. Van der Heyden said were it not for the dairy, Grasslands would not have set up in the area.
The idea behind establishing the dairy was to show dairy farmers in the area how to use the greatest resource in the southwestern part of the state — the forage — to their benefit, said Marilyn Calvin, a Mt. Vernon, Mo., dairy farmer who was also chair of the Southwest Research Center Advisory Committee when the dairy was established.
"Since its inception, grazing dairy operations have multiplied many times over," said Stacy Dohle, Southwest Research Center Advisory Committee chair and senior communications manager for the Midwest Dairy Assn.
"Given the success and advancement of the grazing dairy industry in the state, we feel that our purpose of grazing dairy education and demonstration has been achieved and has been far surpassed by dairy producers who have evolved the industry into what it is today," Cope said.