St. CLOUD, Minn. – Creating a dairy ration starts with forage as the base. Other commodities and nutrients are added and balanced to create the nutritional plane desired.

For Agri-King, Inc. Director of Nutrition David Jones, making that forage base digestible and filled with available nutrients is a way to save dollars. That high-quality forage doesn’t require as many other ingredients to meet the nutrient requirements of lactating dairy cows.

As a nutritionist, Jones promotes Agri-King’s Silo-King additive, a forage and grain treatment program, as the start of an Agri-King nutrition program to help dairy farmers make more money than if they didn’t use the product.

Silo-King is used on corn silage, haylage, large and small square bales, round bales, balage, high moisture cracked grains and small grain silages.

The product is available in four forms:

- Silo-King is a standard, granular version that works on corn silage, haylage, alfalfa hay, grass hay, balage, high moisture cracked grains and small grain silages.

- Silo-King WS is a water-soluble version that works on haylage, balage, corn silage and high moisture corn.

- Silo-King Plus is a less concentrated product for application to hay, haylage, balage, corn silage and high moisture grains.

- Silo-King Special/Silo-King WS Special are organic versions approved by the Midwest Organic Services Association for use in organic production.

In a recent phone interview, Jones explained that the product is used not just as a preservative but to improve digestibility. It breaks down cellulose – a sort-of pre-digestion – to create higher quality forage that requires fewer added ingredients to meet the lactating cow’s dietary needs.

“Forage is inexpensive when it is properly harvested and stored, and when the diet is put together right,” he said. “One thing I think is forgotten is forages are an excellent source of sugar.

“The better forage gets, the trickier it can be to work with, and then most people say the forage is too good. That is never true, in my opinion.”

The key for high quality forage, he said, is harvesting early and often based on the calendar cycle. Getting hay or balage put up early (not too mature) minimizes the presence of lignin – the stalky stuff in the stem – that is not digestible by cattle. The other parts of the plant – the hemicellulose, cellulose, sugar and protein – are readily digestible, so Jones encourages producers to try to put up as much of those digestible materials as possible.

He suggests that grasses are ready for grazing when the third leaf has emerged.

Legumes need harvesting before (or by) the pre-bud stage and grasses by the boot stage. You don’t want to wait to harvest until you have a tough, non-digestible lignin stem to deal with, he said.

“Typically we say, ‘At 28 days, go out and cut.’ I’m going to encourage everyone at day 20 at least to get out there and start looking,” he said, adding that he knows of at least one Illinois farmer who makes balage every 21 days, gets seven cuttings and has a high-quality product.

“When you go after quality, you will give up yield,” he said. “You cannot avoid that, but what it can do for the cow is stretch out the inventory. It will last longer because intakes can decrease to maintain production if forage quality increases. I’ll take that tradeoff if I feed cows.”

Jones said taking more cuttings more frequently has a cost (e.g. more diesel fuel), but more cuttings result in greater total yield and quality that can lead to reduced purchased feed later. It’s a similar concept to milking cows three times a day vs. two times. The parlor runs an extra time, but the increased milk can offset the cost.

Jones says putting up haylage, hay and corn silage at maximum nutrition, and then using additive products like Silo-King, makes a great forage even better. Using an additive on dry hay is also important, he said, to minimize leaf loss.

Organic producers that have requirements, such as no soybean meal in the ration, rely on very high-quality hay or haylage. A high-quality organic additive can provide a big advantage over no additive, he suggested.

Additional benefits of using an additive may include:

- Retaining energy and nutrients

- Reducing dry matter loss and leaf loss in alfalfa hay

- Reducing weather damage

- Reducing heat damage in silage and haylage

- Improving feed efficiency

- Improving the bottom line

“My point is you can gain milk with forages if you pay attention to what’s in it, but it’s all relative. If the quality goes down – even if it is really good stuff – if it dips from what you had, the cows will show that response,” he said. “The use of an additive, along with good forage management, can help to minimize the variation.”