Extensive alfalfa winterkill pushed many dairy producers to explore alternative forage crops the past couple months. Spring planting delays due to excessive moisture have further fueled these conversations. Numerous acres across the Midwest will likely be enrolled into prevented plant programs. Final details of these programs are pending, but they have historically been less beneficial to livestock producers.
    Another group of producers seeking alternative forage crops (not necessarily unique to this year) is made up of those looking to maximize yield potential of less-nutrient-dense forage options, typically for heifer or dry cow feed. Regardless of your reason for choosing alternative forage crops, many of the agronomic and nutritional considerations are similar.
    The decision of which alternative forage crop to plant begins with addressing the forage needs of your operation. If a dairy is short on forages for milk cows, corn silage and alfalfa are still the best choices for harvesting the maximum tonnage of digestible nutrients and available protein per acre. Most farms with winter damaged alfalfa have already established emergency cropping acres for this spring. For acres still not planted, corn for silage may still be your best choice through the month of June.
    The most common use of alternative forages is to harvest these moderate- to lower-energy feeds for non-lactating cows. Some alternative crops have a higher propensity for nutrient uptake that may be challenging to certain groups of livestock. An example is potassium levels in oatlage harvested and fed to dry cows.
    Forages can be classified as warm season annual forages, cool season annual forages, and perennial legumes and grasses. Deciding which alternative forage to plant depends on factors such as time of year, soil temperatures, moisture potential and harvest goals. In a spring like 2019, seed availability of a desired crop is also a consideration.
    Spring planting options generally favor cereal grains, such as oat, wheat, rye, triticale or barley. It is common to see the addition of pea with oat or triticale to boost crude protein 3% to 5%. Small grains should be harvested at boot stage for best quality. Often, we move into head development to maximize tonnage for heifers. The challenge with small grain forage harvest is that it matures quickly when dairies are often pressed for time and weather is unpredictable.
    Forage sorghum, sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass are common warm season alternative crops planted to maximize tonnage and generally fed to non-lactating animals. Harvest strategies are either a single cut in the fall to maximize tonnage or multiple cuttings (generally two) for improved quality. Brown mid-rib (BMR) varieties will result in great fiber digestibility and higher quality. Other summer annual options include millet and teff grass.
    For many readers, the idea of double-cropping to maximize forage yields per acre is nothing new, especially those in the southern regions. The most common strategies include winter rye or winter triticale planted on corn silage acres. These winter crops are typically harvested in late May to early June, allowing another option for manure application. Sorghum sudangrass frequently follows on these acres using the harvest schedule mentioned above.
    Oat can also work well in the fall; early August is generally the ideal time to plant across most of the Midwest. Fall oat maintains high quality with shorter day lengths, resulting in highly digestible carbohydrates, lower lignin and modest fiber levels.
    Alternative forage crops and double-cropping strategies can be key components in providing feed for your herd, but they require strategic seasonal timing. Work with your agronomist and nutritionist to develop the best management practices for your dairy.  
    Barry Visser is a nutritionist for Vita Plus.