Fine-tuned forage

Dado shares tips for producing high-quality crops


AMERY, Wis. — At the center of Four Hands Holsteins’ success are quality forages grown, harvested, stored and fed to the highest standard. Rick Dado shared his expertise on the topic during a forage seminar Oct. 4 at World Dairy Expo in Madison. 

“Our forage production goal is to grow large quantities of high-quality alfalfa and corn plants and preserve this quality throughout the harvest, storage and feed-out process,” Dado said. 

Dado and his wife, Gwen, own and operate Four Hands Holsteins near Amery. Their herd of 500 lactating and dry cows has a rolling herd average of 31,200 pounds of milk, 4.2% butterfat and 3.3% protein. Cows average 99 pounds of milk with 7.3 pounds of combined fat and protein per cow per day. Cows are housed in several sand-bedded freestall barns, which Dado said is critical for comfort when feeding high-quality forage. 

Dado farms 1,500 non-irrigated acres which includes more than 500 acres of conventional alfalfa, more than 400 acres of brown mid-rib corn silage as well as conventional corn silage, grain and grass hay.

“We grow a lot of alfalfa for a farm our size, about 1 acre per cow,” Dado said. 

Dado’s knowledge of forage extends beyond the farm and traces back to his days at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison. As a graduate student, he began his forage research there calculating net merit index. In addition, he spent time as a faculty member at Southern Illinois University and also provided technical support for a nutrition company in Michigan. 

Dado feeds one total mixed ration to his lactating herd, and every batch is the same size. Forages make up 60% of the dry matter, 45% of the crude protein, 83% of the neutral detergent fiber and 100% of the long fiber in the ration. 

“We feed a lot of alfalfa to lower supplemental protein costs,” Dado said. 

Dado is generous in spreading manure during spring and fall applications.

“We put a lot of manure on our ground and on alfalfa before we seed down, which is key to our forage program,” Dado said. “We found that young alfalfa seeding responds to heavy manure. It’s useful to work this ground in the fall because when you come back in the spring, the soil is so mellow when it dries out. It’s important for alfalfa establishment, and our alfalfa yields are pretty strong.”

Dado’s crop rotation is primarily corn and alfalfa. He does two or three cuts of alfalfa in the seeding year and uses alfalfa for a maximum of three years after seeding. 

“That keeps the stand young and keeps plant count high, creating a tremendous nitrogen base to work with the following year,” Dado said. 

Dado’s corn is planted in 30-inch rows. Dado has been using BMR corn silage for about seven years and said the hybrids he is currently using are phenomenal. 

Dado’s farm is the last of four farms in a rotation using the same custom harvester.

“We choose a long maturity corn for that reason,” he said. “You control your quality if you determine your time of harvest, but we do not dictate when they start. I just tell my custom harvester, please get started somewhere. It’s most critical on first-cut alfalfa. That’s the biggest challenge from a quality standpoint.” 

To preserve forage quality at harvest, Dado aims for alfalfa with a relative forage quality of 165 and 60% moisture. For BMR corn silage, Dado likes to see moisture at 65% to 68% at the time of harvest. 

The most critical benefit for harvesting forage in the last 20 years for Dado has been the use of a merger. 

“You can go so fast when you have that much feed together in one windrow,” he said. “The merger astronomically improved our quality.”

Dado stores alfalfa and corn silage in bunkers that share a common wall. All four cuttings of alfalfa are stored in the same bunker. When filling the bunker, Dado said to never fill haylage from the middle.

“Fill from the sides and create a bowl,” he said. “V-shaped filling below the wall allows you to pack along the wall. We don’t use any plastics to line that wall.” 

Dado said the operator of the pushing tractor controls the pace of filling.

“He is the most important person on the farm at that time,” Dado said. “Use as many packing tractors as you have room for and keep the dome as flat as you can.”

Dado uses the widest roll of plastic he can find to cover the pack and a double row of tires at the seams and wall edges. He inoculates alfalfa but not corn silage. 

“When storing corn silage, we do it as fast as possible, and harvest dictates the speed,” Dado said. “There are never enough packers when the pile gets large.”

Dado added another side to his bunker three years ago, allowing him to expand his corn silage pile. 

“We don’t have the fall corn silage slump in milk production because we’re always feeding fermented feeds,” Dado said. “In the fall, nothing we feed has been fermented less than four months. What we feed is carryover from the previous season. Our piles are set up so that we can do that. Before, we always fed freshly chopped corn before it had a chance to become silage.”

The face size for his alfalfa is 90 feet by 10 feet and is moved 9 inches each day. The corn silage face size is 2,750 square feet and is moved about 4 inches per day. Dado uses a grapple bucket instead of a facer, which he said slices material to a relatively flat face. 

“It’s not the temperature that gives you a problem on big open faces but rather the moisture,” Dado said. “As long as it doesn’t rain, you could leave that face open for two weeks, even when it’s 90 degrees. The moment it rains, it’s going to turn moldy on you. Mycotoxins, mold, yeast and excess moisture can be devastating to quality. They can blow up a herd.”

Feeding to a clean manger is important, Dado said. 

“It doesn’t do any good to produce high-quality forage if your mangers are dirty,” he said. “We clean mangers every day and power wash them once in a while.” 

Forage quality is a team effort at Four Hands Holsteins and one that takes precedence to achieve maximum milk production.

“It’s very expensive to store and grow forages, so you try to do a good job with what you have,” Dado said. “Try to control what you can control.” 


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