Quality forages from the ground up

Murty provides steps to a healthy program

WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. – There are many factors that go into producing quality feed for dairy cows. While attention is given to planting and harvesting, Steve Murty believes it is important to also look at soil health and the growing phase as well as the economics of doing so.
“We have to make sure the path that you’re going down to meet your goals as a producer is being done economically with some common sense,” Murty said.
Murty is a forage products specialist with Vita Plus and presented at the company’s Midwest Dairy Conference June 15 in Wisconsin Dells.  
Murty believes in the importance of a soil health assessment to identify the quality of the soil on a farm.
“There is a symbiosis relationship between the root of the plant and the fungus of the soil,” Murty said. “They do relate, and having this system is going to increase the ability of the plant to pick up nutrients.”
To measure soil health, there is a process called slate testing. This can be done at the field location by taking two cups of water with a metal screen at the top. The soil clot gets submerged into the water, and that water rushes in to fill the pore space. The soil that has been continually tilled will have less of the glue and the pectin to hold it together; it is going to start flaking off and dropping off into the water.
“Imagine having a quick 2-inch rain in a half an hour on a soil that has not been tilled and has good structure against a soil that has been tilled,” Murty said. “All conventional thinking was that we needed tillage in order to have good soil drainage. That’s actually reversed, and we’ve flipped that on its ear in the last few years.”
Long-term grassland, like property coming out of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, has a better water infiltration rate because the soils are healthier with better structures, said Murty.
However, no-till farming practices are not a feasible management practice for all acres.
“I’m not saying tillage is bad,” Murty said. “If you use them correctly at the right time, throughout the year, there is a place for them in the whole system.”
Looking at forage growth of corn, Murty said some of the critical things taking place during the growth of the corn plant are ear set.
“The old saying is that we don’t want a corn plant to ever have a bad day,” Murty said.
When experimenting on how to control the quality of the corn silage, Murty found that if a drought scenario was introduced in the young corn plant, the amount of lignin and negative feed that plant will produce in its lifetime will be reduced.
“Instead, there will be an increase in the digestible nutrients per acre just by simply turning on the pivot differently throughout that corn plant’s life cycle,” Murty said.
It is also important to look at the reproduction phase which occurs after tassel time.
“We go through five phases in 28 days, and the last phase takes 28 days more,” Murty said. “The reproduction process takes a total of about 56 days.”
That last 28 days adds 55% of dry matter accumulation which is the starch in the feed.
“When you’re thinking about when that custom harvester is going to get there and maybe you’re trying to get 40% starch,” Murty said. “That might be as significant as him starting on a Sunday instead of on a Monday of next week.”
Marty said a problem some farmers in the Midwest have seen in the last couple years is tar spot.
“It’s not been detected to produce other negatives to your feed,” Murty said. “Tar spot goes in and terminates the plant earlier than you would harvest, and you lose your moisture, you lose your feed quality, and you lose your yield.”
Murty said the best way to combat tar spot is simply to harvest early while as much moisture, quality and yield can be salvaged.
When thinking about the last hay harvest, it pays to look at winter survival. A question was asked if the last cutting of hay should be taken Sept. 5 or Sept. 20.
“We’re worried about sending that alfalfa plant off to a good hibernation for the winter with a somewhat full fuel tank,” Murty said. “So, we look at what’s occurring below the ground.”
When alfalfa is cut, it begins growing again and pulls from its reserves. Alfalfa does not start recharging until almost four weeks after the initial cut, then it starts getting the recharge and refilling the fuel tank underground.
“This is what’s critical over winter to come out at spring time with a good first cutting,” Murty said. “That’s when knowing how to shut the cutter down, say Sept. 5, and allowing that plant six to eight good weeks of filling that fuel tank before going into winter time. That’s pretty critical for winter survival.”


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