|See the Big Picture for a Great Forage Program|
By Don Ball
The phrase "can’t see the forest for the trees" is sometimes used to refer to a situation in which someone is so focused on details they lose sight of the things of major importance. While attention to detail is commendable, it’s also good to periodically think about the big picture. With that in mind, let’s consider some concepts that should be kept in mind by anyone who wants to have a great forage program.
Forage typically accounts for over half the cost of production of forage-consuming livestock and provides most of their nutrition, thus having a major impact on both expenses and income. While forage programs vary greatly due to differences in soils, topography, climate, type of livestock, and producer resources and goals, there are certain approaches taken by, or characteristics exhibited by, producers who have the most profitable livestock operations.
Producers who have the most profitable operations: (1) know their forage options and the nutritional needs of their animals; (2) exercise attention to detail during forage establishment; (3) soil test, then lime and fertilize as needed; (4) use forage legumes when feasible; (5) emphasize forage quality; (6) prevent or minimize pests and plant-related disorders; (7) strive to improve pasture utilization; (8) minimize stored feed requirements; (9) try to keep storage and feeding losses low; and (10) continually strive to improve their operation.
Two of these topics deserve special focus. Forage quality is defined in various ways, but is often poorly understood. It represents a simple concept, yet encompasses much complexity. Though important, it often receives far less consideration than it deserves. Adequate animal nutrition is essential for high rates of gain, ample milk production, efficient reproduction and adequate profits. For the potential benefits of advances in plant and animal breeding, introduction of new products and development of new management approaches to be realized by livestock producers, there must be adequate focus on forage quality.
A related topic is the use of forage legumes. Legumes have long been viewed as special and beneficial pasture plants, but there is justifiably heightened interest in them at present, thus the reasons for growing them deserve renewed emphasis. Nitrogen Fixation: When in association with the proper type of bacteria, most legumes can obtain nitrogen (N) from the atmosphere and "fix" it in nodules on the roots, which often results in over 100 pounds of N fixed per acre per year. Forage Quality: Legumes are usually higher in crude protein, digestibility, minerals and vitamins. Distribution of Growth: Introducing legumes into grass pastures often extends the grazing season. Forage Yield: Yield per acre from a grass/legume mixture is often higher than from grass alone, especially if little or no nitrogen fertilizer is applied. Crop Rotation Benefits: Legumes provide N for succeeding crops, improve soil tilth and may create root channels beneficial to subsequent crops. Reduced Animal Toxicities: Growing legumes with toxic endophyte tall fescue can reduce fescue toxicity symptoms and improve animal performance. Legumes also contain more magnesium (Mg) than grasses and thus can reduce the likelihood of grass tetany, the underlying cause of which is Mg deficiency. Environmental Acceptability: Legumes provide slow-release nitrogen, which is more environmentally-friendly than commercial nitrogen. Profit: Forage legumes have the potential of simultaneously improving animal performance and lowering costs.
Don Ball is an Extension Forage Crop Agronomist with Auburn University.