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Alfalfa farmers should aim for dairy-quality hay

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on April 4, 2020

According to University of Wisconsin Extension Forage Agronomist Dan Undersander, “Milking dairy cows have the greatest need for energy and protein of any animal category due to the large volume of milk produced.” 

            He notes greater levels of milk production per cow are generally more profitable due to the greater return in comparison to the fixed cost of maintaining the cow and facilities.

            “Getting the most milk from a cow is a delicate balance of intake and matching energy, nutrient and fiber needs,” he stresses.

            “Forage quality absolutely pays for dairy animals,” he says. “It may help produce the maximum return through high milk or meat production, it may increase breeding success, it may help a producer allocate different pastures or forage lots to the appropriate animal group or it may help get higher prices for hay that is sold.”

            He notes his own studies show for any level of concentrate in the ration, higher quality forage produced more milk. 

            “This occurred because of the higher energy content of high-quality forage and, also, because as forage fiber (NDF) is decreased, animal intake increases,” Undersander explains. “Thus, higher quality forage, not only contains more energy, but also allows the animal eat more.”

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Alfalfa farmers should aim for dairy-quality hay

            Following devastating floods across the Midwest and northern plains in the spring of 2019, many farmers in the region are scrambling to find hay to feed their livestock. This has become a particular problem across large dairy producing regions that rely on high-quality forage. 

            Gary White, a production seedsman with Allied Seed in Powell notes there are hay shortages across many dairy producing states, which could be a great marketing opportunity for local producers. 

            “Growing dairy-quality hay could be a really great marketing opportunity for producers across Wyoming and surrounding states who didn’t see as much flooding,” he notes. 


            Headlines regarding a hay shortage plagued and continue to plague dairy news outlets across the Midwest. 

            According to a article titled, Hay Outlook 2020, published in late 2019, “Wild weather patterns took a toll on the 2019 hay season, causing the nation’s hay stock to reach its lowest level since 2012 and quality to be hit or miss. Looking to 2020, regional supply and demand will continue to be the driving force behind the swing in hay acres and prices.”

            “Due to poor-quality hay and challenging weather in 2019, I anticipate there is going to be some feed shortages for a lot of farmers going into 2020,” says Greg Bussler, deputy director at USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. “Because of this shortage, I think in 2020 there is going to be a strong demand for farmers in the Midwest to plant more acres to hay.”

            According to the Wisconsin Ag News Hay Stocks Report, the state reached an all-time low of 330,000 tons of hay in 2019, the lowest it has been since records began in 1950.

            “Hay stocks across the Midwest in spring 2019 were down 24 percent from 2018,” says Lance Zimmerman, a research and data manager at CattleFax.

            Zimmerman notes the 2018 stocks were also below the norm.

Achieving dairy quality 

            “In order to achieve a dairy-quality hay, producers need to plant thick stands without about 25 pounds of seed per acre,” White explains. “The plant also needs to be harvested at the premium quality stage, which is pre-budding.” 

            He continues, “When we aim for higher quality, we sometimes have to sacrifice some yield, but doing so also sets the stage for a very high quality second cutting as well.”

            John Jennings, a forage specialist with University of Arkansas Extension notes, “The greatest single cause of low-quality forage is harvesting hay or silage when it is too mature. Early-bloom alfalfa has more total digestible nutrients than mature alfalfa.”

            “Mature alfalfa is considered below-average in quality,” says Jennings. “It contains more fiber as it matures and may average 13 to 15 percent protein on a dry matter basis. Mid-bloom alfalfa is considered average quality at 16 to 17 percent protein.” 

            Jennings continues, “Early bloom and late-bud-stage alfalfa forages are classified as high quality, with upwards of 18 percent protein or higher on a dry-matter basis.”

            “However, the most important quality component of alfalfa compared to grass is the lower fiber because it allows for greater feed intake, which in turn allows for greater milk production,” he says.

            Callie Hanson is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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